Southwest, a scrappy Dallas-based airline known for its fun-loving-and-not-so-serious culture, survived 9/11 and emerged as the nation’s largest domestic carrier. But how did the company whose “hostesses” used to wear hot pants do it? In the March issue, senior editor S. C. Gwynne writes about the multi-dimensional characters of the airline that ultimately led to its success and recent expansion. Here’s the story behind the story.
You’ve written many stories about corporations. Was your approach to this story any different?
My approach is pretty consistent. I just try to get access to as many people as I can. I have written stories about companies without their cooperation, but to me, nothing beats full access to company management, which in this case Southwest granted me.
Do you remember the first time you flew on Southwest? Where were you headed?
My first flight was from Austin to Houston, I think. Probably in 1994. The flight attendants were like stand-up comics. One joke after another, including a few about crashing. I had never seen anything like it.
In your opinion has the company changed at all since its colorful co-founder Herb Kelleher stepped down as CEO?
The company culture is still, amazingly, very much as it was. But almost everything else is different. Remember this used to be a little short-hop carrier that pretty much flew around Texas and neighboring states and always into odd little airports. Now it is the largest domestic carrier.
How do you make a business story interesting to the average reader?
Mainly by trying to find a good, old-fashioned story and telling it in an interesting way. The story here is how Southwest alone made it unscathed through the decade of the 2000’s, the worst period in the history of the airline industry. In good stories there are often heroes or main characters with great problems to overcome. The hero in this case is Southwest. The problem is, to put it bluntly, 9/11.
Southwest has made some daring and risky choices that may have led to its success. Why does it seem that the company is always trying to buck convention?
Defying convention and conventional wisdom is actually built into the DNA of the culture. They never follow anyone; they act alone and independently.
What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this story?
I loved the fact that Southwest employees actually sent their own company money to help it through hard times. That’s astonishing when you think about it.
Do you think the unique culture of Southwest will still be maintained after the merger with AirTran?
I wouldn’t bet against it. People have been saying at every step in Southwest’s evolution that it could not possibly maintain its old culture. They were all wrong.
How do you see Southwest’s future?
As I point out at the end of the story, Southwest is facing some major challenges in the next few years now that it is no longer the scrappy, fast-growing airline it used to be. Southwest is now going to have to deal with some of the same cost problems that have plagued other big, legacy carriers. In some ways this is the greatest challenge Southwest has ever faced.