Formula For Airline Success: Loyalty To Employees

I just ran across this little news item about a Southwest crew buying pizza for passengers when a flight was diverted and delayed last week.

This happened just as Southwest reported a jump in revenues and analysts predicted the airline will earn $500 million this year, as Terry Maxon reported in The Dallas Morning News.

I believe these two things are related. Southwest Airlines succeeds in large part because its employees treat customers with concern and respect. And the employees treat customers well because the company treats them well. It’s very simple. What goes around comes around.

The pizza idea is not new. Back in 2007, several other airlines made the news when employees bought pizza for stranded passengers. This proves that there are high-quality, compassionate employees working for airlines throughout the industry.

The difference  is that Southwest deserves employees like that. As a Southwest employee explained to me once, the company considers itself to be an “employee first” operation. It hires very carefully and expects a lot of hard work and a good attitude. But it then empowers those  employees to make their own decisions —  and stands behind them.

Southwest Airlines has never laid off a single employee. It has never retreated into bankruptcy as a means of gutting employee benefits and pensions. It now has the highest pilot pay in the industry and yet, despite relatively high labor costs, is the most financially stable U.S. airline.

Southwest’s reaction to the recession was to cut staff through attrition and then to do everything it could to increase its load factor so it could keep its workers employed. 

It’s not a perfect company. It was fined recently for breaking the rules about bumping passengers. But it routinely rates high in customer satisfaction and registers by far the fewest complaints per passenger, according to the Air Travel Consumer Report.

In the most recent report, for March 2010, Southwest chalked up .09 complaints per 100,000 passengers emplaned, far fewer than any other airline. In fact, the nearest competitor had about five times as many complaints per passenger (Mesa Airlines at 0.43) and the airline with the most complaints had about 23 times more (Delta, 2.08).

The legacy airlines that have mistreated their employees while professing to put the customer first just can’t match Southwest’s customer satisfaction levels or its financial success. They can’t reproduce Southwest’s corporate culture because you can’t order employees to be loyal as a matter of policy — you have to earn that loyalty. 

It’s a wonder that so many employees of legacy airlines are still loyal to their employers. But in many cases their fatigue and poor morale show through to the passengers. Why wouldn’t it?


One thought on “Formula For Airline Success: Loyalty To Employees

  1. franorama world

    Makes me want to apply for a job at Southwest. Seriously. I first flew with them a year and a half ago and wonder why I never did it before. The flights have been on time or close, the staff was friendly, and unlike American and especially US Airways, my luggage got there when I did. And Southwest was considerably cheaper. And they don’t gouge for checking baggage.

    In short, it’s not only a company I’ll gladly give my business to, it’s one I wouldn’t mind working for in the least.


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