Long before airlines were charging for the oxygen on their plane, Southwest Airlines, no Herb Kelleher had an idea – let’s make flying affordable, and while we’re at it fun and friendly. And let’s not make the latter two, an edict. Let’s just treat our employees really well – in fact let’s focus more on our employees than we do our customers – then the employees, naturally in turn, will give everyone awesome service and an awesome experience, and the customers will return, etc. etc.
(Later SWA transformed Chicago’s Midway Airport from a ghost town to their largest hub operating 34 of the 43 gates, with 234 daily departures.)
This whole lower fare thing was something the competition was not going to take sitting down. He was going up against some big guns, particularly in Dallas, American Airlines. (As I’m writing this commentary, I happen to be on an American Airlines’ flight. And, so as not to put any voodoo on this plane, I’ll confine my comments to the brilliance, moxy and love of Mr. Kelleher and do my best not to compare.)
It was not an easy beginning for them. There were all kinds of legal battles around airports and borders and still they thought themselves equipped to stay the course, going all the way to the US Supreme Court and Texas Supreme Court. They won and after this four-year fight, the first Southwest Airline flight was taking off.
Or, I could just throw around two financial stats that no other carrier can claim: 1. SWA has made a
profit for 46 consecutive years (since inception) and NO employee has ever been furloughed – even
through the Great Depression – not a one.
What I will tell you, is Herb’s Employee First Culture, was sincere and deliberate. This was one time, the trickle-down theory worked. He knew that flying was serious business and safety is ALWAYS first, still he encouraged his staff to keep it light and not take themselves so seriously. That was also his mode of operation. Think back to the first time you were on a Southwest flight and the attendants cracked a joke on the loud speaker. Or when you called Southwest and you knew the person on the other end really liked what they were doing. There wasn’t a stressed-out or impatient syllable muttered – they were down to earth and authentically friendly and helpful.
Being on the Board of the Press Club of Dallas, I had many opportunities to hear Herb speak, to watch his playfulness spill over into any event he was at, and to repeatedly quote his wisdom and wit as a financial commentator for NPR’s “Marketplace.” His joie de vivre was contagious,
and most of all he LUVED his employees.
Kelleher knew that without dedicated employees, he was just another CEO with a large company. And every other CEO knew he was special as he was constantly bestowed the coveted title of The Most Admired CEO. He sincerely loved his employees, and they loved him. So did I.