Luv and War at 30,000 Feet

Since the late eighties, every major airline in the country has gone bankrupt—except one. How on earth did scrappy, lovable, cut-rate Southwest hunt down its competition and emerge from all of the turbulence as the nation’s largest domestic carrier? And can its celebrated culture survive its success?
Illustration by Joe Design

We are on a mission of love. There are no other words to describe it. After a meeting of Southwest Airlines’ Culture Committee, sixteen of us have deployed down a dim, windowless hallway in the company’s inner sanctum at Love Field, in Dallas. I am following a young woman named Jamie Lanham, who is wearing a metallic-pink cowboy hat, a pink tutu, and blue jeans. She is very excited. “Don’t you love this?” she asks. “People here eat this up.” She’s talking about celebration-crazed Southwest, which loves partying and commemorating events and putting on shows and dressing up in funny outfits. The idea that an airline would have a 129-person committee dedicated to such a thing might seem a little strange, but not when it’s Southwest, the same company whose flight attendants deliver safety instructions in rap and whose co-founder has shown up on flights dressed as the Easter Bunny.

Our mission is to sneak up on a department known as Crew Scheduling, then shower its workers with praise, adoration, and, yes, love, for no other reason than that they are doing one heck of a good job. Showing love and appreciation to fellow workers is a bedrock principle at Southwest. The committee’s job is to make sure no one forgets that. Team members carry trays of cupcakes, buckets of candy, and a hand-painted poster that reads “To the Best People Movers in the Business.” As if they needed more of these sorts of things, they also have a pile of “Kick Tail-a-Grams,” messages of thanks and encouragement addressed to individual workers. When we enter the work area, the team members disperse. They tape the poster to the wall. They distribute the Kick Tails. They hand out the goodies. As we return to the main conference room—where we will rejoin eight other groups that have been on similar missions—they whoop, fist-bump, and high-five one another.

If this strikes you as altogether too sophomoric, rah-rah, and naively cheerful for a heavily unionized, publicly traded, $15 billion corporation in a profit-obsessed, viciously Darwinian industry, I would make two observations. First, you will

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