Are Recent Southwest Airlines Problems An Indication Of Culture Issues?

Southwest Airlines has survived for decades above the fray that the other major airlines have dealt with.  When union issues crippled American Airlines and United Airlines (not so much Delta, who still has large portions of their employee base not represented by a union) Southwest Airlines hummed along in labor bliss.  The employees are largely unionized and have been largely happy.  There were some small skirmishes around recent contracts for certain trade groups like flight attendants, though those contracts got ratified.  The mechanics union is a notable exception.

Southwest Fleet Troubles

If you don’t follow the airline industry closely and haven’t been flying Southwest lately, you might not know there’s an issue.  I do follow the industry and had one of my colleagues, Mike on Southwest flights this week.  It didn’t end well for him, with a 2-hour delay on his outbound flight.  The numbers don’t lie, and they’re certainly not pretty.

Here’s the thing, it gets uglier.  The union is on record saying their mechanics aren’t causing problems.  They jumped on the offensive as well, noting that Southwest isn’t calling in mechanics that volunteered for overtime shifts to help fix planes.  As someone who’s followed the airline industry for quite some time, this sort of back-and-forth is something I expect to see…..with pretty much any other airline.  Southwest has largely avoided these sorts of skirmishes.  This one is having a real effect on the airline’s ability to serve their customers.  And, it comes on the heels of the most generous offer Southwest has made to attract new customers in quite some time.

Is This Hurting The Southwest Culture?

When things started to get bad last week, I did start to openly wonder if this would have long-term effect on Southwest’s ability to serve their customers in a friendly manner.  Culture is so key for airlines.  The workforce is very decentralized.  That means employees are frequently in contact with customers without any supervision.  Bad apples really can spoil the whole bushel.  It’s been many years since I lost track of how many times I have a crew of flight attendants that just don’t want to be there.  On a recent 5+ hour flight the purser took over the galley for over 3 hours to do his taxes, neglecting the cabin the entire time.  First class customers were getting up to ask him for drinks when they needed something.

Gary of View From The Wing asks the exact question I’m pondering.  Is this hurting Southwest’s culture?  For now, I’d say no.  Mechanics aren’t flight attendants.  They infrequently come in contact with customers to project their displeasure.  Still, it’s shocking to me to see this much disruption at Southwest.

The Final Two Pennies

While these problems aren’t likely to have eroded Southwest’s culture significantly (though they may) I do think Southwest Airline’s image is taking a hit here in the eyes of customers.  My colleague who flew Southwest was extremely frustrated.  His frustration may have been exacerbated by the fact that he, like many others, don’t expect these sorts of mass delays and cancellations from Southwest Airlines.  They run a good operation.  Seeing them cancel 10% of their flights is head shaking.  I hope this gets fixed soon.

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1 Comment

  1. I cannot say that the end game will be the same, but decades ago, Eastern and the IAM kept going at it and eventually both sides lost. Eastern was no Southwest. However, if the union decides not to back down, Southwest will have to meet at least some of the union demands or the degradation of service will have an adverse result for the airline.

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