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Southwest Airlines Is the (_____) Company on Earth : a) Zaniest b) Savviest : Answer: Both

There's Definitely a Method to the Madness as Southwest Airlines--and Just Watch the Rest of the Industry Try to Copy It

June 09, 1996|JESSE KATZ | JESSE KATZ is The Times' Houston bureau chief. His last article for the magazine was a personal essay on his work covering L.A. street gangs

If the gimmickry strikes you as too cute, it's hard to dispute the bottom line. Southwest has revolutionized the industry, spawning a new generation of mimics and lowering fares across the country. It likes to say its business formula can be copied--high-frequency, short-haul, point-to-point flights--but that its culture cannot. "There's a psychic ownership here," says Libby Sartain, who holds the unlikely title of vice president/people. There's a shrewd commercial objective to all that feel-good psychology. Long before corporate America started rallying around buzzwords like "total quality management," Southwest discovered a simpler truth: "Fun" employees are not only friendlier but also less likely to grouse about hard work and mediocre pay--even with about 85% of them unionized.

That's not to suggest that all the levity at Southwest is part of some elaborate ruse. People really are happy here--so happy that you're often left wondering about the wellspring that feeds their devotion. In honor of Boss's Day--a bogus holiday if ever there was one--Southwest employees collected $60,000, buying a full-page ad in USA Today to thank Kelleher (whom everyone knows as Herb) "for being a friend, not just a boss." When gas prices soared during the Gulf War, employees volunteered through payroll deductions a total of $130,000 to help offset the skyrocketing cost of jet fuel. That commitment surely warms the hearts of Southwest's stockholders--many of them employees, by the way, thanks to a generous profit-sharing plan. Still, there's something else going on here: an almost mystical passion that keeps this place marching in unison--"an element of cultism," as Thomas Petzinger Jr. writes in "Hard Landing," his acclaimed 1995 account of the airline industry.

Or maybe it just looks that way because the rest of America is fraying at the seams. To most people, life feels a bit more confusing and fragmented these days, the search for meaning and identity a little less heartening. Folks don't vote or read newspapers or attend PTA meetings as they once did. They don't even bowl the same, as a Harvard professor told President Clinton, presenting the wane of blue-collar leagues as a metaphor for social decline. Southwest, although it may not appeal to our more individualistic traditions, has concocted an antidote for the '90s. Not only has it maintained the workplace as a stable environment--no small feat in this era of downsizing and mergers--but it has filled the void left by other ailing institutions. It's an extended family, a virtual community and, not least, an ersatz church.

Kelleher acknowledges "a patina of spirituality" at Southwest, which also is known as "the LUV airline." His No. 2, Executive Vice President Colleen Barrett, once considered becoming a nun. "It sounds corny, but it's almost like a cause for our people," she concedes. And what becomes of those rare individuals who defect to another airline, even if they later repent? "No one goes back to Southwest," says Tom Volz, who made the mistake of jumping ship for an ill-fated post at Continental. "It's like the monk leaving the monastery."

ON A SWELTERING DALLAS NIGHT, IN AN ALUMINUM AIRLINE hangar decorated with heart-shaped balloons, Herb Kelleher showed up for Southwest's 25th anniversary party last month with a bodyguard at his back. It's not because he was the target of threats or anticipated a hostile reaction from the sweaty, beer-drinking mob of pilots, mechanics, flight attendants and reservation agents packed into the cavernous shed. To the contrary, he needed an escort to protect him from the gush of adulation, lest one of his own employees blindside him with a little too much Southwest spirit.

"It's him!" a voice in the crowd shrieked.

"I love it, I love it, I love it," Kelleher bellowed.

In an instant, he was swamped, his pale blue eyes beaming in a sea of waiting lips, groping hands and flashing cameras. A live band began pumping out dance songs--"This is how we do it"--as a woman in a cocktail dress twirled into his arms. Another grabbed the back of his jeans, yanking him toward her for a smooch. By then, Kelleher's face was red with smeared lipstick.

"Oh my God," squealed a woman with a striking mane of kinky blond curls. Kelleher whispered into her ear, then ran his fingers through her locks.

"What'd he say?" everyone wanted to know.

"He told me, 'Don't ever change your hair,' " she sighed, delicately stroking her tresses as if she would never wash them again.

If a cultish intensity pervades Southwest, there's little doubt about who reigns as High Priest. Theatrical and obsessive, a man who once said "it's better to be Irish than smart," Kelleher is the embodiment of Southwest's culture, a lawyer by trade and a snake charmer by temperament.

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