Southwest Airlines Corporation.
Southwest Airlines Corporation
In 2001, Southwest Airlines Corporation’s (Southwest) year-end results marked 29
consecutive years of profitability. Southwest, which was incorporated in Texas,
commenced customer service on June 18, 1971, with three Boeing 737 aircraft serving
three Texas cities: Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. The company grew to become
the fourth largest U.S. airline (in terms of domestic customers carried). In 2002, it
boasted a fleet of 366 Boeing 737 jets. Southwest was the United States’ only major
short-haul, low-fare, high-frequency, point-to-point carrier. (Refer to Exhibit 1 for
five-year financial highlights.)
Southwest had the lowest operating-cost structure in the domestic airline industry and
consistently offered the lowest and simplest fares. Southwest also had one of the best
overall customer service records. In 2001, the airline had 35,000 employees and
generated total operating revenues of $5.6 billion from a passenger load factor of
68.1 percent. Its stock exchange symbol was LUV, representing Southwest’s home at
Dallas Love Field, as well as the theme of its employee and customer relationships.
Fortune magazine consistently recognized Southwest as one of the top 10 businesses
to work for in the U.S. and one of the most admired companies in the world. Among
airlines, Southwest ranked on top as the most admired airline worldwide from 1997
through 2001. In 2002, The Wall Street Journal reported Southwest Airlines ranked
first among airlines for customer service satisfaction, according to a survey by the
American Customer Satisfaction Index. Business Ethics listed Southwest in its 100
Best Corporate Citizens, a list that ranks public companies based on their corporate
service to various stakeholder groups.
The Southwest Difference
Southwest did not employ the hub-and-spoke approach used by other major
airlines, such as United, American, and Delta. Instead, its approach was shorthaul
(average flight time was 55 minutes) and point-to-point (e.g., Dallas to Houston, Los
Angeles to Phoenix). Southwest had no assigned seats, paid its crews by trip, and used
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Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth – William F. Achtmeyer Center for Global Leadership 2
less congested airports (e.g., Baltimore instead of Washington’s Dulles or Reagan;
Manchester, N.H., instead of Boston, Mass.).
Forty-six percent of Southwest’s passenger revenue was generated by online bookings
via southwest.com. In 2002, the cost per booking via the Internet was about $1,
compared to the cost per booking of $6-$8 through a travel agent. Terra Lycos, the
largest global Internet network, reported that Southwest received 50 percent more
searches than any other airline.
Southwest pilots were the only pilots of a major U.S. airline who did not belong to a
national union. National union rules limited the number of hours pilots could fly. But
Southwest’s pilots were unionized independently, allowing them to fly far more hours
than pilots at other airlines.
Other workers at Southwest were nationally unionized, but their contracts were
flexible enough to allow them to jump in and help out, regardless of the task at hand.
From the time a plane landed until it was ready for takeoff took approximately 20
minutes at Southwest, and required a ground crew of four plus two people at the gate.
By comparison, turnaround time at United Airlines was closer to 35 minutes and
required a ground crew of 12 plus three gate agents.
CEO Herb Kelleher, who founded Southwest, was deeply committed to a philosophy
of putting employees first. If they’re happy, satisfied, dedicated, and energetic, they’ll
take real good care of the customers. When the customers are happy, they come back.
And that makes the shareholders happy. 1 Southwest’s walls were filled with
photographs of its employees. More than 1,000 married couples (2,000 employees)
worked for the airline. The average age of a Southwest employee was 34 years.
Southwest employees were among the highest paid in the industry and the company
enjoyed low employee turnover relative to the airline industry.
Southwest’s culture of hard work, high-energy, fun, local autonomy, and creativity
was reinforced through training at its University of People, encouragement of in-flight
contests, and recognition of personal initiative.
Being in the people business meant a rigorous approach to hiring new employees. In
2001, Southwest reviewed 194,821 resumes and hired 6,406 new employees. The
company’s hiring process was somewhat unique: Peers screened candidates and
conducted interviews; pilots hired pilots, and gate agents hired gate agents. To better
understand what the company sought in candidates, Southwest interviewed its top
employees in each job function (e.g., pilots, gate agents, baggage handlers, ground
crew) and identified their common strengths, then used these profiles to identify top
1 Joan Magretta, What Management Is: How It Works and Why It’s Everyone’s Business (The Free
Press, 2002), 199.
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Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth – William F. Achtmeyer Center for Global Leadership 3
candidates during the interview process. Southwest hired for attitude as much as
aptitude. Noted CEO Kelleher, We want people who do things well, with laughter
and grace. 2
Southwest initiated the first profit-sharing plan in the U.S. airline industry in 1974
and offered profit sharing to its employees every year since then. Through this plan,
employees owned about 10 percent of the company stock. In 2000, Southwest offered
its employees a record-setting $138Mm in profit sharing. This tax-deferred
compensation represented an additional 14.1 percent of each employee’s annual
1. What is Southwest’s strategy? What is the basis on which Southwest builds its
2. How do Southwest’s control systems help execute the firm’s strategy?
2 Kevin Freiberg and Jackie Freiberg, NUTS! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal
Success, (Bard Press, Inc., 1996), 65.
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Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth – William F. Achtmeyer Center for Global Leadership 4
Exhibit 1. Comparative Financial Data on Selected Companies
Five-Year Average: 1995-2000
Southwest United American Delta Continental
Five-year return on equity (percentage) 16.3 27.9 12.9 19.5 38.1
Five-year sales growth (percentage) 14.5 5.4 3.0 6.5 11.2
Five-year net income growth (percentage) 26.9 -31.4 30.2 15.2 8.8
Sales ($B) 5.6 19.3 18.1 16.7 9.9
As percentage of sales:
Cost of goods sold 76 91 87 83 89
Gross margin 24 9 13 18 11
Operating income 23.7 9.0 12.8 17.5 11.0
Net income 10.7 0.3 4.3 4.9 3.5
Return on equity (percentage) 18 12 12 17 30