Leadership lessons from Southwest Airlines

I have been in the Aviation industry for almost 20 years, spanning 2 full service airlines and many roles including Flight Attendant, Flight Safety Instructor, Revenue Manager, Network Planner. Recently, I flew Southwest Airlines for the first time.

Southwest Airlines is a legend in the business and I had read so much about their philosophy and customer service but I had never really experienced it first hand.

So when I had the opportunity to fly them from Baltimore to Las Vegas via Salt Lake City, I was delighted and compelled to write my reflections on the leadership trends they embody.

  1. Stay focused — Southwest has been consistent in terms of their service and product offering. Whilst almost every airline tries to modify their offerings in the wake of economic downturns and competition, Southwest has been focused on their business model.
  2. Strive to be the best — Southwest truly is competitive even if they are a “low cost” carrier. They are on time, their aircraft are clean and well maintained and their people are the best. They definitely have an advantage over their competition without compromising on quality.
  3. Treat your people well and give them ownership — It is evident that the people have ownership over their role and the bandwidth to go beyond the call of duty. I read several reviews of how employees went out of their way to make customers’ journeys comfortable, often bypassing procedures in the larger interest of the customer. This in turn reflects on the faces of the employees who are partners in the business.
  4. Treat your customers well — When compared with “full service” airlines operating in the US domestic market, I thought Southwest was far ahead of the rest. They had competitive pricing, they offered more food for free and were generous with the soft drinks. They are the only airline that does not charge for your checked in bag(s). I also heard that in times of disruption, they don’t charge for rebooking and happily reroute or rebook you.
  5. Optimise resources — Quick turn around times, single fleet type and happy staff make for a great combination to optimise resources, a consistent quality product and generate profits over a longer period of time.
  6. Design for the user — Southwest is a customer’s airline and it shows in every aspect of the travel process. I could not find a single fault with them.
  7. Empathy — When there is empathy, it takes customer service to a higher plane. I felt very comfortable, at ease and relaxed flying Southwest and I guess most of my fellow passengers felt the same way too. This was because empathy is reflected in the actions of every employee as well as the business process of this airline.

If you have not tried Southwest yet, I would highly recommend it.

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