How Southwest Airlines Continues to Fly High
There was a time when airline travel represented a special occasion. People dressed up, flight attendants served great food, and everyone had plenty of legroom. Today, airline travel is by and large a commodity. Unfortunately, when most CEOs decide their business is a commodity, they also treat the customers and the employees as commodities as well. Strategies of improving the customer experience are often replaced with examining how much the customer will tolerate in return for a cheap seat.
The consequences of running businesses with this mentality are on full display in retail where lowered standards around the customer experience and employee value fueled a seismic shift driven by Amazon.
In the airline industry, employees are often treated with such disdain that flight attendants will ask the pilots to raise the cabin temperature so passengers become more lethargic. Pilots often delay flights on purpose, just to get a bit more overtime.
In a market filled with lowered expectations, Herb Kelleher turned Southwest Airlines into a cult hit. Even though the company offered some of the lowest fares, they treated employees and customers with respect and an initiative to make travel as fun as humanly possible. They hired upbeat people. They provided an environment that kept employees upbeat. Over the years, Kelleher eliminated unvalued services and introduced a variety of innovations that made travel far more efficient for the entire industry. A culture grew where employees took their jobs seriously and themselves not seriously at all. This past January, Mr. Kelleher passed away and many in the airline industry view him as one of their greatest leaders.
All business and talent strategies must grow if they are to remain fresh. When Gary Kelly took over Southwest in 2013, he introduced a new set of aspirations to all of their employees. He asked everyone to support a vision of becoming the most loved, most flown and most profitable airline in the world.
What did he do to grow the culture of the company?
He suggested that people who fly carry interesting and profound stories in their travels. He suggested that employees become part of their stories, to listen in why they were traveling. He suggested that listening was not only a wonderful way to elevate the passenger experience, it would also raise the tone of working at the company. As I researched the specifics, there were many anecdotes about family travel, important business journeys, and more. Over the last few years, there is a growing and living body of work that not only bonds employees to each other but to the passenger as well.
One story stood out in an unforgettable manner. A woman named Nancy sent the following letter to Mr. Kelly:
“Last night, my husband and I got the tragic news that our three-year-old grandson in Denver had been murdered by our daughter’s live-in boyfriend.”
Her husband had to get to his daughter as quickly as possible. He was on a business trip. In Los Angeles, the crowds were so backed up that he was going to miss the plane. TSA could have cared less. But, a flight attendant from the first leg of his journey had already called ahead to the pilot of the last plane. He ran to the gate expecting to see everyone gone.
The pilot of his plane and the ticketing agent were waiting for him.
They both said,
“Are you Mark? We held the plane for you and we’re so sorry about the loss of your grandson.”
Today’s greatest CEOs represent far more than a positive balance sheet. They build cultures that matter. They are never too busy to demonstrate heart. They instruct their employees to think and feel rather than yelling, “hurry!”
Lowering prices doesn’t equate to lowering interest and care. At a time when we witness passengers being dragged from planes and stories of routine misery, the companies that wait by the gate and listen regardless of whether the passengers story seems trivial, funny or profoundly sad, these are the organizations that we ought to study and emulate.
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