This is Not the Southwest Airlines Way

On a recent Southwest Airlines flight I found the “40th Anniversary Special” of Southwest’s magazine Spirit. In the magazine, Southwest founder Herb Kelleher interviewed current Southwest CEO Gary Kelly. Kelly gives an example of an employee acting from Southwest’s core values; then he adds, “All of our people do know what is right, and they feel empowered to act on it. That hasn’t changed.” Until my recent flight, based upon my own experience, Kelly provided an accurate assessment of the Southwest corporate culture. Indeed, in my book The Inner-Work of Leadership I held up Southwest as a model for others to follow:

In spite of their no frills service, Southwest Airlines is always at, or near, the top in customer satisfaction among airline passengers. Once we understand the power of values and principles, it is easy to understand why.

Southwest has few rules (principles) for their employees to follow. “Always practice the Golden Rule” is one of their core principles. A story is told of an applicant for pilot: He was rude to a Southwest gate agent and found his interview cancelled. Southwest doesn’t believe in the ego’s philosophy of shunning responsibility by blaming others. All Southwest flight crew members, even the captain at times, pitch-in to clean the cabin and get their plane turned around quickly. As a result, Southwest Airlines has the fastest turnaround from the gate in the industry.

In other words, to work successfully at Southwest, one has to surrender an ego’s sense of self-importance. One can scarcely imagine a captain on most airlines cleaning the cabin. Doing so may actually violate rigid job classification rules of some airlines. More than that, the captain’s ego may justify his choice not to help: “It is not my fault the plane is late.” Or, “If I help out today, pretty soon they will expect me to help on all flights.” Or, “My job requires me to stay in the cockpit.”

In her instructive book, The Southwest Airlines Way, Jody Gittell explains the factors responsible for the success of Southwest Airlines. One value honored at Southwest is mutual respect among employees. The easiest way to get in trouble is to offend another employee. Gittell contrasts Southwest with American Airlines where a virtual caste system exists. Mechanics look down on gate agents. Gate and ticket agents look down on ramp employees. Ramp workers looks down on cabin cleaners. Cabin cleaners look down on building cleaners…

If my recent trip is an indication, something has begun to erode the cherished corporate culture at Southwest Airlines. Apparently many Southwest employees no longer know and do “what is right.” Employees must use values and principles in daily decision making; if they don’t, an organizational culture laboriously built over many years by the hard work of many can be destroyed.

Consider this sequence of events my family and I recently encountered. From Minneapolis we were to fly into Chicago to catch the flight that would bring us home. It was a stormy day in Chicago and flights were being delayed. Finally, Southwest canceled all flights into and out of Chicago. Stranding passengers is bad for business, and the decision-makers at Southwest have every incentive to avoid doing so; but on this day, it was the right choice. We joined the line of stranded passengers who would have to find alternate routes to their destinations.

There were literally two Southwest agents working to reschedule hundreds of stranded travelers. Does that sound like all hands on deck for Southwest employees at Minneapolis? Not so much. Chaos ensued as edgy travelers tried to push to the front of the line thinking their circumstances were more urgent than those of others. While the two agents worked as hard as they could to reroute travelers, did any other Southwest employees think it worthwhile to help keep order? Not so much. Was any Southwest supervisor on hand to pitch in? Not so much. Apparently, they had better things to do than deal with distraught travelers.

About thirty minutes after the line formed, an announcement was made: We were encouraged to call the Southwest reservation center as they would be able to assist with rerouting itineraries. On her second attempt, my wife got into the phone cue at Southwest. It was another half hour on hold before she spoke with an agent. Although she clearly explained that our flights into and out of Chicago were cancelled, she was told we could get a refund for the cancelled flights and reschedule; but we’d have to pay the difference in fares for any new flights we booked. My wife again explained that our flights were canceled. “Sorry,” the reservation clerk insisted, “you’ll have to pay the difference.” The clerk was ignorant of a basic Southwest policy shared by all airlines—if your flight is cancelled the airline has an obligation to get you to your destination at no additional charge. How could any airline employee not know this?  My wife asked to speak with the clerk’s supervisor; the supervisor got on the phone just as it was our turn to be assisted by an agent in Minneapolis.

We were among the fortunate; having been close to the front of the line, we ended our call with the reservation center. It was now an hour since we got on line.  I can’t even imagine how long those passengers who were in the back of the line waited before they were helped.

Along with perhaps 20 other rerouted passengers, we got out of Minneapolis that night on an almost empty nonstop flight to Raleigh-Durham. The forecast was for more storms in Chicago the next day; we were grateful to get to the East Coast.  There may have been other stranded travelers standing in line who were not processed in time but could have benefited by this flight.

Like us, most of the passengers on the plane to Raleigh-Durham had not originally intended to fly there. On board was at least one stranded family with young children.  Did any member of the Southwest crew on the flight ask if anyone needed assistance? No. Did the crew or ground personnel from Minneapolis notify the folks at Raleigh-Durham that stranded passengers were on the flight? No. The plane arrived at 12:40 am. Were there any Southwest personnel to greet the stranded travelers? No. Were they any visible Southwest employees at the gates or ticket counters? No. Were any shuttles still running to any local hotels? No.

It was 1:00 AM when we found a concerned Southwest supervisor who was in charge of baggage. He quickly made several phone calls in order to locate a hotel room for us. He didn’t understand why no one from Minneapolis had called ahead; if they had, he would have been ready to assist all the passengers who needed hotels. Referring to those Southwest employees who missed opportunities to be of service, he added, “It only takes a minute. This is not the Southwest Way.” His belief in the Southwest Way was palpable and touching. Now, remember, his job was in baggage; but in the spirit of the Southwest Way, he was doing what needed to be done. Having found a room, he directed us to the taxi stand. Since shuttle services had stopped, he offered that Southwest would pay for the taxi fee if we brought back a receipt.

We were still to get more of an education in the erosion of the cherished Southwest Way. Within minutes we were on the curb, confused about where to find the taxi stand; the crew from our flight walked out as a group. We asked if they could direct us to the taxi stand. Without pausing, they shrugged their shoulders and kept walking to the transportation waiting for them. From the indifferent look on their faces, it seemed that an impulse to assist us did not cross their minds.

The next morning when returning to the airport, we stopped at the ticket counter to get our boarding passes. After receiving our passes, I asked the clerk to refund the $40 “early boarding” fee that we had paid for our canceled flights. She said I would have to write a letter to customer service. I was incredulous. The agent’s supervisor was standing there and chimed in that the early boarding fee was not refundable when flights are cancelled due to weather. I said, “You canceled our flights; surely you can’t keep our money for a service that you didn’t provide.”

“That’s the policy,” she answered curtly and turned her back and walked away. My wife wisely grabbed my arm, as she sensed that I was going to react in a way not keeping with my own values.

As it turned out, when we arrived home, there was a computer-generated email from Southwest that had been sent automatically shortly after our flights were canceled. The email refunded our early boarding fee. I wondered, how could a ticket agent and her supervisor not know a basic Southwest policy? How could the manager argue with a customer that Southwest would keep money for services that they did not provide?

On this one trip, there were too many Southwest employees, in different locations, who behaved badly for my experience to be an anomaly. It seems that the Southwest Airlines Way is no longer valued by a critical mass of Southwest employees. Not only that, but some employees we encountered, such as the telephone reservation clerk and the tickets agents at Raleigh, are either incompetent and/or badly trained.

Why is the Southwest Way no longer valued?  I suspect that Southwest employees are no longer hired and evaluated based on their adherence to Southwest’s values. Of course, as an outsider I can’t be sure; but of this I can be certain: It takes years to build a cherished culture such as the one that defined Southwest but it takes much less time to tear it down. The Southwest Airlines Way is harder to achieve than Not the Southwest Airlines Way. Here lies a cautionary tale for all organizations.

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9 Responses to This is Not the Southwest Airlines Way

  1. Chris C. says:

    I will be flying next month, for the first time in years. The trip will be from Baltimore to Denver, on Southwest. It will be interesting to see how things go, as my previous experiences with Southwest have all been positive, while not so much with other airlines (US Airways all the way back to Allegheny, Delta, and Eastern come to mind).

  2. Steve P says:

    Barry,
    Perhaps Southwest employees are finally succumbing to the strengthening negative influence of the bearish social mood trend.

    • Thanks, Steve. This is a very interesting hypothesis- a deteriorating social mood is stronger than a very strong corporate culture. If so, Southwest should be training their employees on to how not to succumb to their negative thinking.

  3. Bob G says:

    I would recommend that you send in this entire article to Southwest and see what they have to say about your various encounters. It will be interesting to see if they acknowledge your observations and try to correct their problems OR if they deny and defend. Their response will say alot about their ability to maintain the culture thay made them succesful. I would be interested in hearing their response or to know that they did not respond.

    Thx – Bob G.

  4. 7/12/11 update: There has been no reply at all to my emails. Not even a form letter thanking me for my concerns etc. So they didn’t “acknowledge” or “deny and defend” –instead they are in ignoring mode. No wonder their employees are giving up the Southwest Way!

  5. G. Travis Whitehead says:

    I too had been very pleased with SouthWest policies until this week when I learned a new one.

    Dreading a red-eye connection that was going to put me in after 1AM if on time I was horrified to see after my short hop to Las Vegas that the incoming aircraft was going to be delayed indefinitely in Denver. I could still catch a USAir flight to the east coast so I asked about how much of a refund I could get on the Southwest ticket to the east coast and they told me $3.70 out of the $540.00 paid. Obviously this discourages people from finding a better alternative, but does not seem like “the right thing” to do. Ultimately I got in after 5AM on a flight delayed 4 hours. No longer a fan of SouthWest, and will no longer recommend them.

  6. Joey says:

    I have a feeling that some of these problems could be from the acquisition of AirTrans. Speaking to several friends that work for SWA, there is a lot of animosity between the employees that have worked for SWA for many years, and the new AT guys. A lot of the former AirTrans employees would not have been accepted to work at SWA if they were to apply individually, but because of the way Gary Kelly managed the buy-out, the ‘new’ AT workers were brought in anyway.

    In my opinion, Gary Kelly is the reason behind this. IT comes down to bad leadership from the top. Herb Kelleher would have never stood for what Gary Kelly does, and has even been publicly vocal about it in the past.

    Just because SouthWest always has the best customer review ratings of US airlines, does not give them wiggle room to reduce the quality of their services. Yes, going the extra mile may be more difficult, and may reduce profit margins, but in the end, there is less traffic along the way.

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