I traveled this week from Houston to Indianapolis to me to meet with two of my key artisans and tour their operations. I bought Southwest Airlines “Wanna Get Away” tickets for economy. Guess what? Economy means full planes … I mean, it’s more crowded on a full 737 then a Greyhound bus! And to make matters worse on this trip, a weather-related nonstop flight cancellation put me on a one-stop Houston to Tampa to Indianapolis flight. When we stopped in Tampa, I made a dash to the over-the-wing emergency exit aisle for a little more leg room. There the flight attendant threatened us with middle-row seats if we could not abide by the emergency exit responsibilities. An eight year veteran, she then told me the story of a “Spirit” party where Herb introduced himself to her and just took her newly poured draft and began to drink it. Then, on the return flight home the Southwest gate attendant came over the public address system and asked all gate passengers why Southwest would never let Peter Pan fly with them? Because they would “never-never-land”!
So here’s an industry renowned for losing money … flying. That Southwest is the exception is connected to their cause and their love ( market symbol LUV ) for people. Here’s how the authors of Firms of Endearment characterized the contrast:
The Southwest business model is distinguished from the business models of its major competitors in two crucial ways. First, they rest on a foundation defined by principles of human behavior. Second, its operations are driven by a flexible organizational structure that changes to suit circumstances. The business models of other major airlines rest on a foundation of numbers. The operations of the traditional airlines are driven by inflexible hierarchical structures in which employees are organized by specialty functions. Who has ever seen pilots and other airlines help flight attendants and ground crews ready a plane for its next leg? This happens routinely at Southwest. The turnaround time saved translates into millions of dollars in additional revenue annually – without a dollar’s worth of added cost involved. This could only happen in a company without a hierarchical structure where love between front-line employees, their unions, and management prevails.
Their cause at Southwest is democratizing the skies … to make it affordable for Mimi in New York to visit her grandchildren in Phoenix. They are not perfect. During the week I could not access their site to obtain my boarding pass because it had crashed from an onslaught of people responding to a promotion of $49, $59 and $69 tickets.
They have a cause and they care about their people. At my factory stop at Bruce Fox, Inc., they were making a gorgeous set of amazing awards with the new “heart” logo. Southwest has mastered the art of saying thank you from the highest levels of the company for all the right results. Are their employees dedicated to the extent of being evangelists? Yes! What other airline refused layoffs to “fix” their bottom line after 9/11?
Heart matters, do ya’ think?