A Wintry Melt Down

Posted by jlubans on January 03, 2023

Thousands of stranded passengers, 13,000 flight cancelations and mountains of unclaimed/undelivered luggage all suggest that Southwest Airlines is in “melt down”. Indeed, that is the head-line writers preferred term.
Count me a SWA loyalist.
I’ve written about SWA and their - at one time - unique style of leadership and teamwork.
In my teaching, I use SWA as an exemplary organization for putting best management theory into practice.
And, I fly on SWA whenever I can.
Why the melt down?
SWAs flight attendant union doesn’t hold back: “It is the complete failure of Southwest Airlines’ executive leadership. It is their decision to continue to expand and grow without the technology needed to handle it.”
It does seem to me from afar that SWAs new leadership - unlike the iconoclastic duo of Herb Kelleher and Colleen Barrett - comes across pragmatic and staid. Worse, unimaginative. The leadership blames IT failure, that all too familiar organizational scapegoat.
The proactive and iconoclastic SWA of the 1970s now appears reactive.
Perhaps it was inevitable that an organization could not sustain the zip, verve and ingenuity that characterized the un-afraid SWA of the Kelleher/Barrett years.
Back in the 70s, SWA was all about doing it better and differently to keep expenses down and, along the way, keeping a sense of humor.
Why do you think SWA was the first domestic airline back in American skies after 9/11?
Once head and shoulders above the rest, it is now hard to distinguish SWA from any other airline, even those claiming to have weathered the epidemic better than SWA.
SWAs success was not due to whiz bang IT systems; it was people who loved doing what they were doing and a leadership that encouraged them - set them free - to do so!
Some critics suggest that the post-pandemic SWA has gone “woke” with a distracting focus on ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) matters over getting the job done for the least cost and maximum profit with the highest customer satisfaction.
It may be that ESG moved up the priority list ahead of replacing, refurbishing aging computer systems.
Well, my activist friends will say, why not do both ESG and IT?
I suspect given SWAs reputation for frugality, it does not have the built-in fat of so many other corporations. Indeed a survey of other airlines suggest they too have major IT concerns, so it is not just SWA.
Two years ago this month I blogged about an encounter with SWA: “You Built It.
Here it is again to remind me what a great airline it was and still can be.
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Caption: Southwest Airline Engine (and plane) over Rocky Mountains, west of Denver, CO, USA. January 9 2021

Early in January of this new year I was waiting for my return flight from Denver, Colorado to Portland, Oregon.
I sat across from my departure gate – just waiting and looking at the passers-by of which there were surprisingly many streaming past, all masked.
I was on a SWA dedicated concourse – full of arriving and departing SWA travelers and crews - so it was not unusual that there was a SWA flight crew sitting nearby. I was by myself having a take-away glass of wine (thank you virus!) .
One of the flight crew, a man, asked me if I was going to Spokane, the destination at the next gate and the one his crew were working. That got the conversation rolling.
I asked him about the last president of the airline, Colleen Barret, if she was still working several hours a week in spite of her retirement. He said no, she was less and less involved.
Then I mentioned my meeting Herb Kelleher (1931-2019), the co-founder of the airline and how welcomed I felt sitting in his office. From the first second, it was like visiting with an old friend.
This was in Dallas, Texas, which is where SWA is headquartered.
I mentioned my asking Herb – there was nothing of the “Mister” about Herb – about SWA’s culture of excellent customer service. I asked if the underlying values would change on his retirement.
“No”, he said, “it’s in the DNA.”
I related that story to the flight attendant, “He said that, did he?” he queried.
“He sure did.”
Hearing that, he pulled out his phone and said he had a picture to show me.
It was one of him in ramp agent* gear sitting next to Herb – in a suit - chatting away.
In other words, that’s the CEO hobnobbing with one of the workers.
He told Herb - the CEO - how appreciative he, the ramp agent, was of the “empire” Herb had built – the Southwest Airlines empire, the company.
Herb responded, “I didn’t build it, you did.”
So, here we have one of the workers with a picture of the CEO on his phone. How many workers do you know who carry around a picture of their CEO?
Just think about it.
And think about Herb’s perspective about who’s in charge, who’s responsible for SWAs success, about who should get the credit.

*We know what flight attendants do.
The lesser known “Ramp Agents” guide the plane in to and out of the gate, help get passengers off and on the plane, and unload luggage and cargo and make sure the luggage gets to the right person. They also re-provision the plane – water, snacks, drinks, paper goods.
And, on January 9th they de-iced my plane before we took off for Oregon.
Some ramp teamers, like the flight attendant I met in Denver, aspire to become flight attendants.
See my “No Bean Bags Here” essay.
Also there are chapters on Southwest leadership and culture in my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle. Amazon has it.

© Copyright photo and text John Lubans 2021, 2023

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