By: Akiva Frishman  | 

Flying High: Checking-In with Southwest’s Secret

“Welcome to Milwaukee!” is not among the phrases a person would like to hear on an airplane— assuming your intended destination had been LaGuardia. But this and a variety of other amusing one-liners and pleasantries are frequently offered by the spirited and upbeat flight attendants on Southwest Airlines.

The Dallas-based company and its friendly staff have consistently ranked amongst the highest in customer satisfaction—which is far from a given in the airline industry—and has grown into the 4th largest airline in the U.S., servicing more than 115 million fliers a year. Additionally, in 2003 SWA became the nation's largest domestic air carrier and has since maintained that ranking according to the U.S Department of Transportation's report of domestic originated passengers boarded. The secret to its success appears to be an employee-focused philosophy stressing that happy workers leads to happy customers. As the airline industry works to improve its flier-experience, it is worthwhile to consider some of the company policies that have contributed to Southwest’s success in this regard. 

What exactly motivates an SWA flight attendant to be “happier” or more “upbeat”  than other airlines’ workers? One might be tempted to suggest economic factors; that wage and employee-attitude are sufficiently correlated and thus, Southwest provides their employees with greater incentives for stronger performance. Indeed, according to data found on “Glassdoor”, a website that provides salary information for various firms, Southwest does seem to offer the highest hourly wage for flight attendants compared to American, Delta, and United Airlines ($34, $31, $30, $30, respectively). However, lacking more comprehensive income details, it is impossible to say that the apparent wage-gap cited by Glassdoor is not closed in the form of other employee benefits like vacations or bonuses provided by other airlines. Further, if customer satisfaction and employee-attitude were only a function of salary, it is difficult to imagine how a low-cost operator like Southwest is able to rival far more expensive companies like Delta and United who could seemingly shell out the extra dollars for stronger employee-performance.

Instead, it is Southwest’s commitment to hiring the right people, valuing their ideas, and instilling a sense of appreciation within its workers that most strongly contributes to its employee performance and by extension, customer satisfaction.

It would be too ambitious to argue that the “bags fly free” airline somehow makes its flight attendants into compassionate comedians, but they still deserve recognition for recruiting such a crowd. According to Julie Weber, a Southwest Executive Vice President, “we talk about hiring not for skills but three attributes: a warrior spirit (that is, a desire to excel, act with courage, persevere and innovate); a servant’s heart (the ability to put others first, treat everyone with respect and proactively serve customers); and a fun-loving attitude (passion, joy and an aversion to taking oneself too seriously.)” For the 50-year-old airline, an employee’s personality is often worth more than a resume or technical knowledge. Due to Southwest’s commitment to hiring such individuals, it is not surprising that passengers still find a way to smile after a long delay or a lack of overhead space.  

However, a group as exceptional as this deserves to feel like their opinions matter, and Southwest accomplishes just that. For example, in redesigning its company uniform, the airline did not seek suggestions from an outside firm or even from members within the boardroom. Instead, all 40,000 employees were asked to submit a drawing of his/her idea. Later, each of them voted on their favorite designs and their artists—comprised of 28 employees from Ground Ops, Inflight, Provisioning, Technical Operations, and Cargo departments—sat down to produce the new uniform.

By promoting this culture in which all of its employees feel respected and valued, Southwest ensures that its workers are happy and motivated to stand out. The effects echo throughout the entire corporation: If the technical operators sense that they are appreciated, then naturally they will work as efficiently as possible and with maximum effort, in order to ensure the flight can take off on time. The same reasoning holds true for other employees as well. And while it is the flight attendants who are ultimately remembered for their wisecracks and compassion, their attitude can—at least somewhat—be attributed to the benefits of a clean and functional aircraft provided by other employees. The company values each of its many “links” and the end result is a flight full of passengers who in turn, feel valued.

Finally, in line with the southern values from which the company draws from as its core principles, the company always remembers to say “Thank you” to its workers. The 50 year-old company has remained committed to job security and according to CNBC has never issued a pay-cut. In addition, SWA has always structured its finances to allow for its employees to take part in the company’s profits. This past year, that number amounted to $586 million, or 13.2% of each employee's eligible salary. The company culture seeks to impart on its employees that each of them is vital to the team’s success and this philosophy encourages them to always play their best.

There is evidence that other airlines in the industry are seeking to adopt Southwest’s commitment to customer satisfaction.  For too long, fliers have rightfully complained about delayed flights, irritable personnel, and luggage weight limits and it's possible that these grievances have finally met the ears of those in the boardroom. A 2016 study conducted by Wichita State University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University found that the likelihood of lost baggage or a delayed flight has dropped along with the quantity of customer complaints and that  these improvements have contributed to higher customer satisfaction (It is worth noting that Southwest receives the lowest number of customer complaints among the major airlines). Dean Headley, the co-author of the report, writes “People don’t look at numbers. They just care about what happened to them.” In other words, the staff, gate check workers, and flight attendants all contribute to the actual flight experience which could determine if a flier chooses a specific airline. It seems to be the case that a passenger’s experience is inextricably linked to the behavior and actions of the employees on board.

In an economy that has been wholly transformed by automation, the airline industry remains one of the few that is still very much dependent on quality, face-to-face, employee-customer relations like those of Southwest. And while some airlines have taken steps to improve their flier experience, there is still a long way to go. If airlines want to ensure that their clients are satisfied, they ought to implement--or build upon--a system that encourages the highest degree of employee performance. Attention Airlines: Southwest’s philosophy is ready for take-off.

This article has been updated since its original publication.