Fred Taylor, Southwest Airlines' manager of proactive customer
communications, adds a bit of levity to the
Morning Overview Meeting (MOM) at
Southwest's Dallas headquarters on May 24.
June 10, 2007
By: Julie Johnsson
Talking helps keep trouble at
Southwest's approach coordinates workers from all
DALLAS -- At 9 on a Thursday morning, a dozen people cram into an
airline conference room to tally the damage from the previous day's extreme
weather: thunderstorms in the East, heat in the West.
The results were
ugly: 17 flights delayed more than four hours, four jets diverted to other
airports, five planes still in the air at 5:30 that morning. On top of that, the
software that was supposed to help the carrier schedule its flight crews went
down for two hours. Several people groan.
Southwest Airlines holds two
such meetings daily at its headquarters. They're aimed at not only assessing
what went wrong but figuring out what can done to make things better, a reason
why the carrier receives high customer-service and on-time performance marks,
executives say. It's also part of Southwest's push for a more open
Most airlines tend to have top-down, military-like cultures. As
a result, the people closest at hand when things go amiss -- customer service
agents, baggage handlers, ramp workers -- often aren't encouraged to report
problems. In fact, they fear being punished for doing so.
front-line troops are prodded to report service problems immediately so things
can be fixed and customers kept in the loop. As delays and cancellations worsen
across the industry, Southwest has drafted new ways to get everybody working in
concert when weather, air-traffic control or freak events disrupt its
Even so, it has taken a while to get people to adapt. Take the
twice-daily meetings, internally called MOM and DAD, acronyms for Morning
Overview Meeting and Daily Afternoon Discussion.
Although the sessions
have been in effect since 2000, it took most participants a long time to feel
comfortable owning up to mishaps, said Fred Taylor, senior manager for proactive
customer service communications and the executive team's eyes and ears at the
"They were very guarded in what they would discuss," said
Taylor, who began attending in 2001 at the behest of Southwest President Colleen
Barrett. "They saw it as I'm prying, and I could cause their department to be
reprimanded. Slowly, I built up their trust."
It's Taylor's job to keep
customers and company officers in the loop on the airline's service
On this day, he probes for details on two particularly hellish
excursions. Flight 2133, from Las Vegas to Reno, aborted its takeoff after an
alarm sounded in the cockpit as the plane whipped down the runway at 170 m.p.h.
Its brakes also overheated, which was no surprise given the sudden stop and
100-degree air temperature.
But mechanics couldn't figure out what set
off the alarm. The plane appeared fine.
Taylor pushes the pilots at the
meeting on possible culprits: Takeoff vibrations? A pilot bumping a sensor?
Nobody could say for sure. Flight 77, from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, was the
worst of the many flights sent off-track by severe thunderstorms in the East. It
arrived hours late because of a combination of lightning, air-traffic
restrictions and refueling. Midway across the continent, the plane made an
unscheduled stop in St. Louis to replace its pilot, who had logged the maximum
number of duty hours.
"I think we're going to write on this because it
just got absurd for customers," said Taylor, referring to letters of apology and
explanations that will be sent to every passenger on these two flights. Taylor's
group sends about 39,600 letters each year.
The communications strategy
is the brainchild of Barrett, a 39-year veteran of Southwest who got her start
as an executive assistant to Herb Kelleher, the airline's founder.
not suggesting we're perfect," Barrett said. "When we mess up, we mess up big
time. But when we do mess up, we get out there, tell people that and give them
When things go amiss, workers often are reluctant to let
superiors know when problems snowball. "The last thing they'll do is be candid,
with customers or superiors," aviation consultant Robert Mann said.
a dilemma confronting every airline: How to keep things from getting worse once
operations break down or planes get stuck in giant conga lines on
In the aftermath of last winter's storms, American Airlines
created a position to monitor diverted planes. "We're very concerned about what
happens to our airplanes," said Mary Frances Fagan, an American spokeswoman.
"Aviation is an orchestrated ballet. We need airline operations, the [Federal
Aviation Authority] all working in harmony."
Southwest's challenge is to
ensure that information moves quickly across its sprawling enterprise. It
carries more passengers within the U.S. than any other carrier, 300,000 per day,
and makes more domestic flights than any other airline, 3,300 each day. At 494
airplanes, its fleet is now larger than United's.
lines open is Barrett's responsibility, and she says the airline's 34,000
workers are taught to exhibit a "warrior spirit, service heart and fun-loving
"We empower our people to make decisions on the spot," she
added. "You can't violate laws, but every rule, procedure and guideline that's
written down is just that -- a guideline. You can have a set of circumstances
that don't fit the guidelines and you have to use common sense."
November, in an effort to improve communications, Southwest brought into one
room dispatchers, ground operations, customer service and other teams that had
been scattered around its headquarters building.
That move paid off
quickly. In the face of the Feb. 14 storm that crippled JetBlue Airways,
Southwest shut down operations in Baltimore and Philadelphia, two of the
airline's busiest centers, as well as those in seven other cities. And just as
quickly, Southwest resumed operations once the weather cleared the next
That's not to suggest that Southwest never makes
For example, the airline misjudged the crush of passengers
leaving Las Vegas following the NBA All-Star Game on Feb. 19. The line of people
trying to get into the airport stretched three-quarters of a mile from
Southwest's ticket counter, according to news reports. Many had decided to take
advantage of Southwest's liberal ticket restrictions and leave on Monday instead
In hindsight, the airline should have had staffers work all
night to check in passengers, Barrett said. "It was the infamous domino effect:
Once it breaks down, it's almost impossible to catch up."
Southwest sent 22,000 apology letters to customers.
center is the new operations coordination center, kept dark to cut down on
eyestrain because many of the 60 or so employees work across multiple computer
Bill Kalivas, a dispatch superintendent, pulls up a computer map
of the U.S., showing every flight in progress. The central part of the country
and East Coast resemble a giant beehive, with planes seemingly swarming over
every inch of air space. At that moment, 6,043 aircraft are in the air over the
Kalivas and other dispatchers keep track of each of Southwest's 494
jets, most which will touch down in seven or more cities in a typical day. The
company's in-house software uses color coding to let dispatchers know which
planes are on time, which are late. They know when the pilot releases the brakes
to push back from the gate, or when flight attendants shut the
Southwest takes such data seriously as it works to get the most use
of its aircraft, which is a strategic advantage the carrier holds over its
competitors. The average taxi time for each flight takes 7 minutes, Kalivas
said. The airline's average turn, the amount of time needed to unload passengers
and reload the next flight, is 22 minutes.
If the plane sits on the
ground for more than 30 minutes after releasing the brakes, a notification pops
up on Kalivas' screen -- a feature added after the February
"You've got to be careful," he said. "That's why we're in this
Through the ebb and flow in the control room, workers listen
to each other keenly. The dispatch superintendents sit elbow to elbow, as do the
customer service managers in the aisle behind them. This is
"By design, I can say stuff and get people to react," Kalivas
said. "How many connections are on 2694?" he calls out, asking for the number of
passengers meeting connecting flights.
"Nine," comes the response from
the customer service folks.
Like many workers at headquarters, Kalivas is
"We're not proper, we're real reactive, real fast,"
Kalivas said of the free-wheeling culture in the center.