I’m generally a nervous flyer. It’s gotten better in the last couple years, but I still get sweaty-palmed and tightfisted when the plane is ducking and bobbing through even the most minor bits of turbulence. When the pilot’s ding sounds, I always mute my music to listen in. I’m quick to buckle-up. I’m quick to assign my own seat if I can–I always pick a window. I don’t know why that matters, as if knowing exactly where I’m going to be sitting in a nosediving 757 is some hellbent way to have some control in certain death. I guess I’d just like to look out the window and watch it all happen. I always keep an attentive ear for abnormal engine gurgles–I sometimes think I hear an engine go out before the pilot even knows…
These thoughts are all ridiculous, I know, but it doesn’t help that the culture of flying is often so stern, regimented, sterile. It can make you crazy. It’s not hard to imagine this very flight is the end of your life because, look, everyone looks so not-real. The plastic flight attendants and the way their hands close the overhead compartments (their fingers don’t bend!), the metallic food bins pushed up and down, the monotone Just-for-Men pilot, the way you don’t see his face until you’re getting off the flight. The silent tubes you walk through to get on the tube you sit in. These aren’t people going to Denver together, daughters flying home to mothers, boyfriends to girlfriends, friends on a getaway; this is a faceless silo, a quiet waiting room for bad news. And that’s not even touching TSA.
Most people, I realize, can objectively say this is overwrought. A flight’s a flight–they aren’t meant to be memorable, but to get you there. Sure, it’s no beach hammock, but it is miraculous to have gone coast-to-coast in just four hours. Based on the benefit, the discomfort is negligible. Granted, call me ridiculous; the in-flight service still feels gravely inhumane to me.
That’s why I wasn’t expecting to hear from the attendant’s speaker as I ran through my carry-on, buckle-in ceremony: “We don’t want to hurry you to your seats, but goodness, hurry up.” And then, to introduce the safety demonstration, “We know you’re not going to listen to this, and we wouldn’t either, but if you could just pull out your earbuds and at least pretend to listen with your eyes, we’ll be done in a second, and it will make us feel better.” And then, with the lifevest-waterlanding spiel, “Just throw this doodad on, pull the levers, hop on in the water, and we’ll follow behind with the beer and peanuts in the party raft.” It was strange, but I felt almost entitled to the miserable flight experience I had had for so long; I was sort of upset that my anxiety had been violated. But it had been, with levity and personality, which is precisely the Southwest way.
A couple others, from further research. During the oxygen mask demonstration: “In the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will descend from the ceiling. Stop screaming, grab the mask, and pull it over your face. If you have a small child traveling with you, secure your mask before assisting with theirs. If you are traveling with two small children, decide now which one you love more.” During a rough landing, from the pilot: “WHOOOOOAA, big fella. WHOOOOOAA.” And the arrival announcement: “We’d like to thank you folks for flying with us today. And, the next time you get the insane urge to go blasting through the skies in a pressurized metal tube, we hope you’ll think of us here at Southwest.”
You may be familiar, but the company has distinguished itself by way of humor. Commercials are goofy, attendants wear Halloween costumes, the CEO has been known to dress in drag. Like many spawning microcorporations, Southwest has been able to remain a community-centered employer, with laid back dresscodes, beer in the office, parties for employees, egalitarian promotions—even with over 30,000 employees. This kind of workplace culture can easily seem schticky, heavy handedly aesthetic, but deeply ineffective. What’s different is that Southwest seems to make those decisions well, too—and with motivational, if not defensive, gusto—they have lower costs and they turn their planes around more efficiently. But most of all, the company paraded the image of a group of people who love people, and parties. As the New York Times said in 2008:
But few big employers are as quirky as Southwest. Its founder and chairman, Herbert D. Kelleher, developed a mighty chip on his shoulder in the 1970s, as other airlines tried to drive the upstart Southwest out of business. Mr. Kelleher, now 76, channeled that, creating an us-against-them attitude that somehow made it seem fun to work harder than other airlines.
And to top it off he reveled publicly in his own love of drink and cigarettes, helping give Southwest a party image.
“It was a shock,” Mr. Kelly said of his arrival. But over time, Mr. Kelly strained, as it were, to fit the mold.
And what a mold: a startling amount of office hugging and kissing in lieu of handshakes; elaborate practical jokes; and on-the-premises beer drinking at headquarters, as long as it is after 5 p.m.
These, of course, amount to only small dials on the corporate control panel, intended to lighten the mood and put a little bounce in the step of the nearly 35,000 Southwest employees.
Mr. Kelly is also pulling on the big levers, fundamentally changing the airline’s business: raising fares, packing more people onto planes, and abandoning an egalitarian boarding policy for one that lets business travelers board and pick seats first. He needs to lift revenue by $1.5 billion a year to offset rising fuel expenses.
But making those big changes stick requires the enthusiastic support of Southwest workers.
What seems to lay beneath the jokes and hugs and parties is the deep, person-focused method of doing business. Business for Southwest is not the grim corporate airline industry but, simply, customer service. They will say in interviews that they are not “Airline People” but “People People.” Southwest will put their CEO in an Edna Turnblad dress because they believe in not taking oneself too seriously. They believe in not taking oneself too seriously because, as jesters, they are servants, and servants cannot be masters—and servant love is what casts out fear. What kind of fear? Well, my kind of fear.