Southwest Airlines Operations – A Strategic Perspective
By Mukund Srinivasan
Southwest Airlines is the largest airline measured by number of passengers carried each year within the United States. It is also known as a ‘discount airline’ compared with its large rivals in the industry. Rollin King and Herb Kelleher founded Southwest Airlines on June 18, 1971. Its first flights were from Love Field in Dallas to Houston and San Antonio, short hops with no-frills service and a simple fare structure. The airline began with one simple strategy: “If you get your passengers to their destinations when they want to get there, on time, at the lowest possible fares, and make darn sure they have a good time doing it, people will fly your airline.” This approach has been the key to Southwest’s success. Currently, Southwest serves about 60 cities (in 31 states) with 71 million total passengers carried (in 2004) and with a total operating revenue of $6.5 billion. Southwest is traded publicly under the symbol “LUV” on NYSE.
* The first major airline to fly a single type of aircraft (Boeing 737s)
* The first major airline to offer ticketless travel system wide including a frequent flier program based on number of trips and not number of miles flown.
* The first airline to offer a profit-sharing program to its Employees (instituted in 1973).
* The first major airline to develop a Web site and offer online booking. In 2001, about 40 percent ($2.1 billion) of its passenger revenue was generated through online bookings at www.southwest.com. Southwest’s cost per booking via the Internet is about $1, compared to a cost per booking through travel agents of $6 to $8.
Key competitive advantages:
* Low Operational costs / High Operational Efficiency
* Award winning customer service
* Human Resource practices / Work culture
Operations Analysis – Competitive Dimensions:
Southwest clearly has a distinct advantage compared to other airlines in the industry by executing an effective and efficient operations strategy that forms an important pillar of its overall corporate strategy. Given below are some competitive dimensions that will be studied in this paper.
- Operational Costs and Efficiency
- Customer Service
- Employee/Labor Relations
- Operational Costs and Efficiency
After all, the airline industry overall is in shambles. But, how does Southwest Airlines stay profitable? Southwest Airlines has the lowest costs and strongest balance sheet in its industry, according to its chairman Kelleher. The two biggest operating costs for any airline are – labor costs (approx 40%) followed by fuel costs (approx 18%). Some other ways that Southwest is able to keep their operational costs low is – flying point-to-point routes, choosing secondary (smaller) airports, carrying consistent aircrafts, maintaining high aircraft utilization, encouraging e-ticketing etc.
1. Operational Costs and Efficiency
The labor costs for Southwest typically accounts for about 37% of its operating costs. Perhaps the most critical element of the successful low-fare airline business model is achieving significantly higher labor productivity. According to a recent HBS Case Study, southwest airlines is the “most heavily unionized” US airline (about 81% of its employees belong to an union) and its salary rates are considered to be at or above average compared to the US airline industry. The low-fare carrier labor advantage is in much more flexible work rules that allow cross-utilization of virtually all employees (except where disallowed by licensing and safety standards). Such cross-utilization and a long-standing culture of cooperation among labor groups translate into lower unit labor costs. At Southwest in 4th quarter 2000, total labor expense per available seat mile (ASM) was more than 25% below that of United and American, and 58% less than US Airways.
Carriers like Southwest have a tremendous cost advantage over network airlines simply because their workforce generates more output per employee. In a study in 2001, the productivity of Southwest employees was over 45% higher than at American and United, despite the substantially longer flight lengths and larger average aircraft size of these network carriers. Therefore by its relentless pursuit for lowest labor costs, Southwest is able to positively impact its bottom line revenues.
Fuel costs is the second-largest expense for airlines after labor and accounts for about 18 percent of the carrier’s operating costs. Airlines that want to prevent huge swings in operating expenses and bottom line profitability choose to hedge fuel prices. If airlines can control the cost of fuel, they can more accurately estimate budgets and forecast earnings. With growing competition and air travel becoming a commodity business, being competitive on price was key to any airline’s survival and success. It became hard to pass higher fuel costs on to passengers by raising ticket prices due to the highly competitive nature of the industry.
Southwest has been able to successfully implement its fuel hedging strategy to save on fuel expenses in a big way and has the largest hedging position among other carriers. In the second quarter of 2005, Southwest’s unit costs fell by 3.5% despite a 25% increase in jet fuel costs. During Fiscal year 2003, Southwest had much lower fuel expense (0.012 per ASM) compared to the other airlines with the exception of JetBlue as illustrated in exhibit 1 below. In 2005, 85 per cent of the airline’s fuel needs has been hedged at $26 per barrel. World oil prices in August 2005 reached $68 per barrel. In the second quarter of 2005 alone, Southwest achieved fuel savings of $196 million. The state of the industry also suggests that airlines that are hedged have a competitive advantage over the non-hedging airlines. Southwest announced in 2003 that it would add performance-enhancing Blended Winglets to its current and future fleet of Boeing 737-700’s. The visually distinctive Winglets will improve performance by extending the airplane’s range, saving fuel, lowering engine maintenance costs, and reducing takeoff noise.
Southwest operates its flight point-to-point service to maximize its operational efficiency and stay cost-effective. Most of its flights are short hauls averaging about 590 miles. It uses the strategy to keep its flights in the air more often and therefore achieve better capacity utilization.
Southwest flies to secondary/smaller airports in an effort to reduce travel delays and therefore provide excellent service to its customers. It has led the industry in on-time performance. Southwest has also been able to trim down its airport operations costs relatively better than its rival airlines.
At the heart of Southwest’s success is its single aircraft strategy: Its fleet consists exclusively of Boeing 737 jets. Having common fleet significantly simplifies scheduling, operations and flight maintenance. The training costs for pilots, ground crew and mechanics are lower, because there’s only a single aircraft to learn. Purchasing, provisioning, and other operations are also vastly simplified, thereby lowering costs. Consistent aircrafts also enables Southwest to utilize its pilot crew more efficiently.
The idea of ticketless travel was a major advantage to Southwest because it could lower its distribution costs. Southwest became electronic or ticketless back in the mid-1990s, and today they are about 90-95% ticketless. Customers who use credit cards are eligible for online transactions, and today Southwest.com bookings account for about 65% of total revenue. The CEO Gary Kelly thinks that this idea would grow further and that he wouldn’t be surprised if e-ticketing accounted for 75% of Southwest’s revenues by end of 2005. In the past, when there was a 10% travel agency commission paid, it used to cost about $8 a booking. But currently, Southwest is paying between 50 cents and $1 per booking for electronic transactions that translate to huge cost savings.
2. Employee and Labor Relations
Southwest has been highly regarded for its innovative management style. It maintains a relentless focus on high-performance relationships and its people-management practices have been the key to its unparalleled success in the airline industry.
To Our Employees “We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth. Creativity and innovation are encouraged for improving the effectiveness of Southwest Airlines. Above all, Employees will be provided the same concern, respect, and caring attitude within the organization that they are expected to share externally with every Southwest Customer.”
The Southwest mission statement shows that the company has a strong commitment to its employees. The company affords the same respect to its employees that is provided to its customers. The Southwest mission statement is unique in that it recognizes the importance of its employees within the broader business strategy, which emphasizes superb customer service and operational efficiency. The employees reciprocate the respect, loyalty and trust that Southwest demonstrates. Southwest employees are known for their loyalty, dedication, attitude and innovation. The employees are the distinguishing factor between Southwest and the rest of the airline industry.
Southwest hiring policy is unique not only within the airline industry, but also more broadly, and revolves around finding people with the right attitude that will thrive in the Southwest culture. Extensive procedures are employed to hire for positive attitude and dedication. Those who do not posses those qualities are weeded out. Colleen Barrett, a non-operational officer at Southwest, states that
“Hiring is critical, because you cannot institutionalize behavior. Instead, you must identify those people who already practice the behaviors you are looking for. Then you can allow Employees to be themselves and make decisions about Customer service based on common sense and their natural inclinations.” 1
Recruiting and interviewing at Southwest is a two-step process. The first step is a group interview, conducted by employees, where communication skills of potential candidates are evaluated. The next steps in this process are one on one interview, where the candidates’ attitudes and orientation toward serving others are evaluated. These hiring criteria apply to all job functions since all Employees at Southwest play a customer service role. A critical part of Southwest operational strategy is that every job at Southwest is a customer service position, whether it directly applies to the customer or whether it is internal.
The table below shows that even though Southwest is the most heavily unionized airline, at approximately 80%, that contract negotiations between the unions and Southwest are much shorter in duration than of the other major carriers. This shows the quality of relationship that Southwest has with its employees and with the unions that represent them.
Southwest was created as a different kind of company and from its beginnings a unique culture was nurtured. In 1990 Colleen Barrett formed the Southwest Culture Committee. This is unique within the industry and among all large companies. The committee also has a mission statement:
“This group’s goal is to help create the Southwest spirit and culture where needed; to enrich it and make it better where it already exists; and to liven it up in places where it might be “floundering”. In short, this group’s goal is to do “whatever it takes” to create, enhance, and enrich the special Southwest spirit and culture that has made this such a wonderful Company/Family.”
It is this unique approach to company values that has created a culture that differentiates itself from others. Southwest’s culture is the reason why it is successful.
3. Customer Service
The Mission of Southwest Airlines The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit.
Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest, has been quoted as saying that “We’re in the Customer service business; we just happen to provide airline transportation”.2 Award winning customer service is a distinguishing characteristic of Southwest and it is referred to internally as “Positively Outrageous Service”. It means that from the top to bottom everyone does whatever he or she can to satisfy the customer. This includes Herb Kelleher, who has been known for helping out baggage handlers on Thanksgiving. It is through emphasizing the customer and employee that Southwest is able to differentiate itself from others in the airline industry. On a more technical level, each employee or group within Southwest has his or her own customer. This means that every employee ‘serves’ in one way or another despite not being directly involved with the passenger. The mechanic’s customer is the pilot and the caterer’s is the flight attendant.
It can be said that the “Positively Outrageous Service” that is unique to Southwest “is not the result of a department, or a program, or a mandate from management. It is not secondary to the product; it is the product.” This approach creates the conditions where Employees are more likely to treat customers in ways that distinguish the company from others. There are numerous accounts of passengers who have received exceptional treatment from Southwest employees.
The question that needs to be answered is how Southwest’s customer service is different and why? Is it common for customers of other airlines to rave about their special service? The answer is that it is not. While Southwest does not have a monopoly on people who are kind and who are willing to go above and beyond to satisfy a customer, such behavior is nurtured at Southwest to a much greater extent.
It can then be concluded that the customer service that is inherent to Southwest is a part of its culture. This culture is supported through employee encouragement to do the extra to satisfy the customer. This approach inspires people who would ordinarily only on occasion go out of their way to help someone, to become consistent performers that offer exceptional service all the time. Southwest employees are what differentiate its customer service from the other airlines.
Southwest utilizes technology in many ways to fulfill its business objectives and maintain its efficient operations. According to its CEO, technology equals productivity. Launched in 1996, ticketless travel was first introduced by Southwest. On May 1st 2000, Southwest Airlines introduces “SWABIZ,” a portal that assists company travel managers in booking and tracking trips made through its web site www.southwest.com. There are many new technology initiatives being undertaken currently and some are in the pipeline.
Bar codes in Boarding Passes
Southwest Airlines has invested $12 million during the past three years to standardize corporate and terminal operations on about 10,000 Dell OptiPlex desktop and Latitude notebook computers according to its company executives. Southwest wanted to replace its well known, brightly colored plastic boarding passes with an electronic system with bar-code paper boarding passes. So it installed about 350 touch screen ticket readers powered by Dell OptiPlex desktops. The bar code gives Southwest more information to automatically reconcile the number of boarding passes with the number of passengers that actually board the plane.
Although the technology will help Southwest Airlines remain efficient by consolidating passenger information for the company’s 3,000 daily flights, there were concerns it could lengthen the time to get travelers on board. However it was found that scanning each bar code on the boarding passes didn’t increase or shorten boarding schedules, but it did take minutes from administrative processes, such as looking up customer records. The new paper bar code system is giving Southwest ticket agents the ability to match a customer record within having to scroll through and log into multiple software screens. The process is much more automated. Once the bar code on the boarding pass is scanned at the terminal gate it checks off the person from the passenger list in real time.
The old process was manual that involved finding the information, scrolling through several software screens from reservations to check-in to boarding. The bar code hardware to scan the boarding passes has been deployed. The company is in the process of replacing customer service back-office equipment at airports including at its headquarters in Dallas.
Software applications, such as those used by clerks to check in passengers, are being replaced. Southwest Airlines’ internally written “Airport Application Suite” is expected to rollout next year as the company transitions from green screens to Window-based user interface. Similar to Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Southwest Airlines believes in developing in-house the software that runs its operations. The company uses very little off-the-shelf software. There are between 75 and 100 projects in the works each year supported by approximately 900 IT employees.
Radio frequency identification technology, a favorable alternative to bar-coding for luggage identification, is also on Southwest’s radar. It plans to test RFID technology sometime in 2006. Even though, Southwest is playing a little catch-up with other airlines such as Air Tran, Alaska and Champion Airlines, in many cases they are able leapfrog to more sophisticated applications easily having waited longer.
Southwest has emerged very successful, despite the most troubled times in the airline market. However, it faces new challenges in the face of increasing competition from other low fare airlines such as JetBlue, ATA airlines, America West.
Due to increasing security guidelines since September 2001, Southwest would need to prepare for assigned (reserved) seating to track its in-flight passengers. This change will involve large technology investments and may impact its gate operations negatively since the current way of unassigned seating has helped in quick gate turnarounds.
The keep-it-simple philosophy has served Southwest well. But as its own business grows and grows more complex, with plans to purchase dozens of new aircraft and an expected upsurge in passenger traffic to about 80 million boarding’s a year, the simplicity strategy that has been reflected in the airline’s IT philosophy is evolving. The CIO Tom Nealon says that “It’s time to adapt our business processes for efficiency. As our airline scales for us to provide the same kind of high-touch customer service, we have to automate a lot of things we’ve been able to do without technology previously. The challenge is doing that without conceding the customer touch.” Southwest is also aggressively pursuing customer relationship management (CRM) techniques and has applications to get insight into customer’s wants and dislikes. According to an interview with its CEO Gary Keller, Southwest has its focus on improving in two areas – customer’s airport experience and in-flight experience.
In an overall effort to improve customer’s in-flight experience, in-flight entertainment is something that Southwest is currently evaluating and which JetBlue has been very successful at already because of its introduction in its long-haul flights. In comparison, Southwest has 415 airplanes to consider and that represents an investment decision at a whole new dimension. Additionally, Southwest has to consider how things may fit into their environment. At this point, 60% of its service is still very short haul. Southwest needs to be mindful of the fact that a certain approach that has been successful for its competitor may not be necessarily work to its advantage.
Southwest has long been regarded as a benchmark in its industry for operational excellence. Southwest Airlines is a fine example of a company that is committed to its core competencies – efficient operations to drive its low cost structure, outstanding delivery of customer service and innovative HR management practices. We hope this paper provided a good insight into Southwest operations, as part of its overall strategy, to achieve success and gain competitive advantage.
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- “Southwest keeps it simple” – Air Transport World, April 2005, Pg 36
- “Around the World on $48 (or So): How High Can Discount Airlines Fly?” Strategy Management – Knowledge@ Wharton Newsletter Oct 5, 2005
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- “Southwest’s Strategy for Success: Consolidate!” – Oracle Magazine (Sept/Oct 2004 edition) http://www.oracle.com/technology/oramag/oracle/04-sep/o54swest.html
- “Southwest Airlines: High Tech, Low Costs” – Eweek.com, April 2005
- “Jet Fuel Hedging Strategies: Options Available for Airlines and a Survey of Industry Practices” – Kellogg School of Management Research Paper, Spring 2004
- Winning Behavior: What the Smartest, Most Successful Companies Do Differently, Terry R. Bacon and David G. Pugh, 2003
- Time Magazine, Oct 28th 2002 issue, Vol. 160 Issue 18, p. 45
- “Wings Of Change”,Information Week, March 28, 2005,
- Labor Contract Negotiations in the Airline Industry, Monthly Labor Review, July 2003, page 24