On excellence: Airlines' soul survivor

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The Independent Online
THIS IS THE WAY cabin staff of Southwest Airlines begin the required passenger safety announcement: 'There are 50 ways to leave your lover, but only six exits from this airplane.'

Herb Kelleher, the company's chief executive, sums up the airline's success formula like this: 'Better quality, plus lesser price, equals value - plus the spiritual attitude of our employees, equals unbeatable.'

Southwest Airlines is so far ahead of the competition it hardly seems fair. Its costs are much lower. So is airport turnaround time. Its youthful aircraft fleet logs many more flights than those of others carriers. Wages are high, but productivity is even higher.

That is why the airline, now serving 41 cities, is so consistently profitable in an industry stuck in intensive care. Southwest also tops customer service polls and was rated in one respected survey as the safest airline over the last 20 years.

What's the secret? The grand scheme is simple - even elegant. Short hauls only. No baggage transfer. No food. No seat assignments. One type of aircraft - and so on.

But there's more: Southwest has soul. Or, as Kelleher, the airline's larger-than-life CEO, puts it: 'We defined a personality, as well as a market niche. (We seek to) amuse, surprise, entertain.'

Kelleher is as shrewd a businessman as I've met, but it is his human side that is so exceptional. He easily peppers his remarks with 'love' (the airline's stock symbol), 'fun' and 'spirituality'. He rips chief execs who sit on numerous outside boards and hang out mostly with one another. Kelleher insists he gets his kicks hanging around his people at Southwest.

'They are restorative and rejuvenating for me,' he said. 'Ponce de Leon was looking in the wrong place when he sought the fountain of youth in Florida. The people of Southwest are the fountain of youth.'

While Kelleher gives his customers a better deal and a good time, he is clear that the people of Southwest come first - even if it means 'firing' some customers.

Are customers always right? 'No, they are not,' Kelleher snaps back. 'And I think that's one of the biggest betrayals of your people that you can possibly commit. The customer is frequently wrong. We don't carry those sorts of customers. We write to them and say: 'Fly somebody else. Don't abuse our people.'

Such beliefs - and actions - have put Southwest in a unique Top Ten, according to the authors of The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America. To be allowed to join the Southwest game, you undergo an intense hiring process that includes at least a half-dozen interviews. But you won't be subjected to psychological tests.

'What we are looking for first and foremost is a sense of humour,' Kelleher told Fortune magazine. 'Then we are looking for people who have to excel to satisfy themselves - and who work well in a collegial environment. We don't care that much about education and experience, because we can train people to do whatever they have to do. We hire attitudes.'

Colleen Barrett, executive vice president for customers (she began as a secretary), told me the airline looks for 'listening, caring, smiling, saying thank you and being warm' - and that is in hiring accountants as much as reservations agents and flight attendants.

The spirited workforce is also flexible. Though unionised to the hilt, anyone will help anyone else in a pinch. 'Our people are results-oriented, not process- oriented,' Kelleher said. 'They are not form-oriented; they don't focus on the organisational hierarchy or position or title.'

So this, then, is a profitable no-frills airline? Whoops] Don't say 'no frills' anywhere near Ms Barrett. 'Oh, no, no. Not no frills. A frill is something extra special, and we offer something extra special every day.' For Southwest, cheap means 'more for less, not less for less,' said one executive.

Kelleher's magic - matchless business acumen and oversized heart - has led the way to 21 straight years of black ink in a vipers' pit of an industry. In the early days, Braniff (which, with the help of a few friends, had blocked Kelleher's efforts to take off for almost five years) undercut Southwest's bargain basement dollars 26 fare. Kelleher's response to Braniff's dollars 13 ticket price was to give his passengers an only-on-Southwest choice: dollars 13 to match Braniff, or pay the dollars 26 and get a bottle of premium liquor. (Southwest ended up distributing a lot of booze.)

Two decades later, Fortune wondered, on its cover, if Kelleher was the best chief executive officer in America. He may well be. He has arguably created air travel's Greatest Show on Earth - plus you get where you're going on time, with your bags and with your wallet intact, and without heartburn from typical airline food. Not bad.