Southwest Airlines and the Flying Big Three


Southwest. Way Southwest. – NY Times

Jeff Bailey at the New York Times wrote a great article about Southwest Airlines and their legendary approach to the key lean principle of respect for people. After talking about Southwest's propensity for cross-dressing CEOs and other ‘fun at work', the author brings up a popular topic in the lean blogosphere these days, direct labor costs:

The premise behind all this is that a little fun translates into a lot of productivity. Southwest, after pay cuts at other airlines, has the industry's highest wages. But because of efficient work habits, measured in how much it spends to fly a passenger a given distance, its costs are the lowest among big airlines.

That right, while legacy airlines, a veritable flying “Detroit Three,” were busy chopping heads and chopping pay, Southwest was doing the same thing that they have always done, cutting waste. Southwest's key competitive advantage over some 40 plus consecutive quarters of profitability has been its 30-minute turn-around time at the gate. By requiring flight crews, including pilots, to do cabin cleaning and not assigning seats, the airline shaved 15 minutes off its ground time verses their competition. This improved on-time arrivals and reduced the number of expensive airframe they had to buy–capital costs during flush years that often leave airlines in the lurch during downturns. Southwest is one of few US airlines that continued to buy, slowly but steadily, through the recent airline crisis.

Nobody would ever compare the flashy, over the top Herb Kelleher with any of the button-down conservative, straight laced types from Toyota City. Strictly speaking, Southwest hasn't used the word lean or cited the Toyota Production System as the source of what they do, but evidence abounds that they embrace the two key pillars of lean: respect for people and continuous elimination of waste. I think this goes to show that lean can wear many types of clothing.

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Andy Wagner
Andy Wagner works for a major aerospace company. Andy blogged here regularly from 2007 to 2010 and still contributes occasionally.


  1. Andy – thanks for your kind words about our airline. Respect for people and continuous elimination of waste are indeed at the core of everything we do – we just call it “living the Southwest Way.”

    Paula Berg
    Southwest Airlines

  2. Thanks Paula.
    I was stranded in Chicago on a Southwest flight during the big Eastern US black-out back in the summer of 2003. You could sense something different in the way every Southwest employee reacted to that horribly stressful situation. They were working extra long hours with hundreds of stranded passengers, yet they took good care, smiled tired smiles, and got the job done!

  3. That’s so good to hear, Andy. I’ve got to hand it to our front line Employees (and the front line Employees at all airlines, really). As you observed, it can be a really stressful job in those types of situations – and it seems the ones that are completely our of our control (i.e. weather) are the hardest to deal with for some reason. I don’t know that I have what it takes, but I’m glad we have so many Employees who do!

  4. The smallest bit of research about Southwest Airlines flack Paula Berg tells us this:


    Now, never mind “wacky”, and “off-the-wall” – “behind-the-scenes Blog Queen” and “Nuts about Southwest” say it all for me.

    So, to Paula Berg of Southwest Airlines, the airline company’s “behind-the-scenes Blog Queen”, who says, regarding the events of March 6-7, 2008, and the now-record US$10,200,000 in fines racked up by Southwest:

    “…this situation was never and is not now a safety of flight issue”.
    Nonsense, Paula. Cracks in airplanes? Nonsense, Paula.

    I’ve been around publicists and other entertainment folk for over 20 years, and I have heard better publicity emanating from self-plugging screenwriters on acid.

    And, Paula, as for:

    “[t]he FAA approved our actions and considered the matter closed as of April 2007”.

    Nonsense, Paula.

    It’s not “closed”, until WE the PUBLIC say it is closed! Take that back to your superiors for me – and tell them that we are just getting started.

    Oh – and, congratulations on staying behind the scenes.

    John J. Tormey III, Esq.
    Quiet Rockland

  5. Has Southwest’s “safety culture” failed them?

    Here’s the article at the NY Times.

    SWA is taking a lot of heat (deservedly so, it seems) on their blog. I’ll give them credit for allowing the negative comments.

    It does seem a bit cheap of them to NOT take the planes out of use once the problem was identified. Is a serious problem (as the FAA indicated… except for the FAA person who thought it wasn’t a problem — since fired) or is it not (according to Boeing and Southwest)??

    I don’t want an airline being cheap or cutting corners on safety. Remember ValuJet?

  6. Mark Graban’s is exactly the measured response flyers should be taking. Obvously I’d express it differently, but then again, I have been fighting aero-malfeasance since last summer.

    According to press reports to date, no less than 6, perhaps more, commercial jet aircraft potentially carrying hundreds of passengers per trip and sometimes on multiple trips per day – had cracks in them. Had cracks in them. And people at the FAA, and Southwest, knew it. And the planes had cracks in them. And the flights continued thereafter, nonetheless.

    Never mind malfeasance. Never mind immorality. If those factual assessments are correct at minimum, then that should be attempted freaking murder.

    Let’s talk about some of the other bloggers. What is WRONG with the non-prosecutorial milque-toasts who blog on-line and refuse to find ANY fault with Southwest? When did standing up for the individual rights, dignity, and safety of citizens become so politically incorrect to them?

    Oh yeah. I forgot. They are all Southwest employees, who, like their “Blogger Queen” compadre Paula Berg, were told or already expected by their ghoulish corporate employer to hit the blogosphere hard this past few days – to try to spin this horrific story to read as if there were never any safety problems that threatened the public – to fool the public, with blogging. Well, Southwest-“anonymous”-posters, YOU are the fools for thinking it wasn’t obvious to the rest of us. YOU are the reason that the laws governing perjury, exist. And as soon as ANY of you hack-corporate sycophants have the courage to identify yourselves by your full legal name and residence address, as well as your Southwest affiliation, then I expect that myself and a few friends will collaborate to give you a REAL working demonstration of how the perjury laws of the United States will further deflate your stupid Southwest publicity balloon FAST. It would be a distinct pleasure to bankrupt your morally-bereft airline, and I would do it just for the collar.

    One pro-Southwest blogger suggested that the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves – that’s right – the same FAA blame-the-victim “strategy”. He suggested, how dare we criticize Southwest, when some of us are not the best drivers in the world. Of course, I don’t take hundreds of lives up in a jet-fueled airplane, and take money for doing it, most days of my life, or any days of my life. So the comparison with any of us car-drivers on an individual level, is a foolish one. But the blogger was correct about this much. Everyone, on an individual level, should take personal responsibility, not merely diffuse corporate responsibility, for ensuring the safety and well-being of others, especially the safety and well-being of youngsters on the road or in the skies. That soccer mom in the Windstar on her cell phone with no headphone, those two goombahs drag-racing through populated areas – they are all as accountable as a publicist who shills in cover-up of corporate malfeasance, or a federal “official” who looks the other way and takes the check. I am going to have an easier time popping those in the latter two categories, though, as they tend to leave paper trails.

    Southwest’s next publicity “strategy”, its new brainstorm of spin-control, was the “Oh, you don’t know all the facts” strategy. “Wait for the facts to come out”. Memo to dutiful-tool-employees: EVERY TIME someone cites the authoritative representations made by a United States Congressman who chairs the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and whose Committee has been investigating Southwest and the FAA since the relevant events occurred in 2006-2007, just tell the people that, “Oh, no, YOU don’t have all the facts. Don’t go judging lest not ye be judged, ’cause YOU don’t have all the facts”.

    That’s funny. It’s also freaking moronic.

    Southwest and FAA’s actions have been the subject of an ongoing Congressional investigation dating back to 2007 or perhaps even as early as 2006. More than enough facts came out through Saturday March 8, 2008, including during the videotaped and audiotaped Representative James Oberstar press conference now available on:
    to make the judgment on Southwest very, very clear. In fact, I have never heard any government official being more precise or more specific about allegations against a malevolent private sector entity, ever before, than Congressman Oberstar in that videotaped and audiotaped press conference. Southwest would prefer that you never, ever watch that Oberstar press conference. That of course means, I trust, it will shortly find its way to:

    I weighed the events of the weekend carefully. Then, I realized – Representative Oberstar’s leadership on the Southwest Airlines debacle issue, as well as the unabashed past publicity balloons of Southwest’s “Blog Queen” Paula Berg which I read and laughed about, inspired me to myself register a new blog of my own this past weekend. You will find this new blog at:

    * * * * *

    I read some pretty funny other posts by Southwest employees using fake names, this past weekend, too. I loved it when I read that one poster thought Representative Oberstar should “defer” to the FAA and Southwest on this issue because, after all, they are the “experts” in aviation. That would be like “deferring” to your kidnap-captors because, after all, they are the “experts” in “captivity” – or like “deferring” to your executioner because, after all, he is the “expert” in “life and death matters”.

    Funny, funny stuff. It would be hysterical if it weren’t so transparent, and so malevolent. My advice to Southwest is, the next time you hire employees to blog for you en masse in time of crisis, at least make sure that they are decent writers, and at least make sure that you spend the money to give them good enough word-processors that contain spell-checking software. Seriously.

    Mainly though, every time you read an anonymous post or blog on the topic of Southwest’s cracked planes and the investigation and scandal which has followed it, from this point forward – or a rarer post for which Southwest actually takes credit, if you can locate one – just please remember: in the words of the late Frank DeKova’s character Chief Wild Eagle, on the 1960’s television program “F Troop”:

    “It is BALLOON!!!”

    “It is BALLOON!!!!!”


  7. JTormey – I’m not trying to censor you, but you have your own blog. It’s bad form to copy and paste your blog posts and make them a comment on someone else’s blog.

    If anyone wants to read more of JTormey’s rantings, click on his name above and you’ll find his blog.

    Does it seem like Southwest’s maintenance practices stink to high heaven? Yes.

  8. Paula,
    I’m serving on active duty with the U.S. Air Force. We have been trying to adopt the Lean philosophy but are meeting with limited sucess. The USAF has even created a program office called Air Force Smart Ops for the 21st century (AFSO21). The AFSO21 office is responsible for teaching and implementing Lean into our way of doing business. I work for AFSO 21 in Italy. I was wondering if there was way I could set up a tour of one of your repair facilities and see if we can generate some ideas for the Air Force. Please contact me via e-mail or phone (39) 0434 30 4042 if we can make arrangements.
    David White


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