Southwest Airlines has a big problem and customers may not know it

Southwest Airlines has a big problem and customers may not know it

Side view of Southwest Airlines plane.

Southwest Airlines/Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk

As we drift into perilous economic times, the whispers from tech companies are vast.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai, for example, tells employees to adjust their cultural compasses and not think that fun should automatically come with money.

It was echoing above my eyes when I came across complaints from Southwest Airlines pilots.

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You might think things are back to normal. Why, Southwest just garnered huge publicity — some not the positive kind — for its free ukulele giveaway on a flight from Long Beach to Hawaii.

At the same time, however, its pilots are picketing. They hold signs that say, “Operation Southwest. First to worst.” And the most painful still: “The exploitation of culture is now the culture of the Southwest.”

The protest was taking place outside a so-called Spirit party in Nashville where Southwestern leaders were celebrating record profits.

Customers may not know what is going on. That’s why pilots picket. They want customers to be alarmed. They want them to be as angry as themselves.

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I landed, you see, on a recent podcast featuring Southwest Pilots Union President Casey Murray.

He described Southwest as having gone from a “company that supported its employees to a company supported by its employees”.

He claimed the airline had “no real vision, no real motivation”.

The flight to Funtown has been canceled

Let’s pause to remember what a corporate culture can do. In the case of Google, for example, the implicit promise was always that you would have (somewhat childishly) fun while working with very smart people doing very smart things and earning unintelligible sums of money.

Likewise with Southwest, the promise was not only that you would enjoy the people you worked with, but that you would be able to interact with customers in a more personal way, while being part of a highly efficient and profitable business.

So here’s Murray, sounding a bit like a Google employee: “The attack on culture has been going on for years.”

Pilots say Southwest’s technology is simply not up to the task of effectively planning staffing. So much so that pilots often see their flights modified and find themselves out of position, sometimes not being able to return home immediately.

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Curiously, Robert Jordan, who became the airline’s CEO earlier this year, agrees the technology isn’t good enough. But when you’re running an airline that’s so dependent on immense employee goodwill – and a similar level of goodwill among customers – how long can you keep people unhappy?

I asked the airline what their reaction was to Murray’s criticism and picketing.

A spokesperson told me, “Southwest Airlines respects its employees’ right to express their opinions. For more than 51 years, we have maintained a legendary, award-winning Southwest culture that celebrates our people and attracts top talent. “

It is therefore clear that the airline realizes that its culture is being criticized.

However, the spokesperson added: “In fact, our recent Southwest Spirit night had over 4,000 Southwest employees coming together to celebrate our airline.”

Heavy use of “in fact” there. The airline seems to suggest that not everyone is so unhappy. But then the conscious Southwest kicker: “While we recognize that we still have work to do to return to pre-pandemic operational reliability, we appreciate the work of our ever-growing team serving our customers. and our colleagues with Southwest Hospitality.”

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More money means more fun?

Of course, the pilots want a new contract.

Murray points out, however, that about 75% of Southwest employees currently have contracts being negotiated. “They are responsible for generating revenue,” he said. While, according to the union, the leaders pay themselves hefty bonuses and organize parties to celebrate the record profits.

It is still difficult to consider airlines as technology companies, even though they are increasingly dependent on technology at all levels of their activity. Still, the problems some seem to be enduring don’t seem all that different from those of Pichai and Google.

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Murray fears the airline will receive fewer referrals for potential pilot recruits. Is it also a cultural issue?

And here is perhaps his most poignant line: “Our pilots are tired of saying, ‘I’m sorry’.”

Ultimately, the next few months could be quite a test. The question, however, may be whether customers will care enough – or see enough of the alleged cultural issues – to want to move their business.

Customers can claim they like friendlier service and happier flight attendants. But, especially in a recession, do they only care about price?

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