Turnaround Strategy: Southwest’s Tale of the Impossible
A story on a successful change management that brought Southwest's employees out of their comfort zone and successfully altered the future of Southwest Airline.
Well known as one of the major Low-Cost Carrier (LCC) in the US, Southwest
Airline took its first commercial flight in 1971. Within a year after its first flight,
Southwest Airline was operating on financial loss due to its low pricing to target
different market in the industry during that period. The airline was then forced to sell
one of its four Boeing 737 to meet the cost of their operation. And instead of cutting
down its flight frequency, the airline pushed the limits of its resources and
maintained — if not slightly increased — its flight frequency.
Southwest decided that if they could manage to push the gate turnaround down
to 10 minutes, they could cover all the routes that were initially planned for four
aircraft. It was a large cut at the time, as other airlines usually take up to 60 minutes
for each gate turnaround that includes the time to unload all the landed passengers
with their luggage, cleaning, refueling, restocking, and boarding new passengers
together with their luggage and cargo.
The large margin was not left unnoticed and negative feedback was directed
towards the idea, voicing that a 10-minute gate turnaround was too short and way
out of their 60-minutes comfort zone. However, the architect of the idea — Bill
Franklin, the former Vice President of Ground Operation of Southwest Airline, was
persistent. He reportedly slammed his hand on the table and bellowed out, 'If you
can’t do it I’ll fire you and keep firing and firing until I find people who can do it,’ and
the rest was history.
Franklin’s intuition was not wrong, within one year after the implementation of the impossible 10-minute turnaround, Southwest Airlines started to generate
positive margin has been profitable ever since. That is until its market plummeted in
mid 2000s. The 10-minute gate turnaround strategy was repeatedly claimed to be
one of the key factors that ‘saved’ Southwest Airlines from the crisis in its fetal
The success of this strategy comes with a lot of trial and errors, multitasking,
engaged employees, and most importantly team work. It is often reported that the
current Southwest Airlines’ company culture is stemmed by the high
engagement of the employees and strong team work between and within each team.
Pilots and air stewardess chip into the quick gate turn around by cleaning up the
cabin, air stewardess multitask between restocking their galley and assisting
customers upon boarding, the ground team waiting on the tarmac is tasked with
getting the new passengers lined up, and a team is prepared to refuel and (un)load
cargo as soon as an aircraft touches down.
There were a lot of strategizing and procedures alterations involved in
successful implementation of the seemingly impossible strategy. Fees for checked in
baggage was absorbed to the ticket fares to lessen the incentives of bringing
baggage to the cabin, free sitting arrangement for passenger cockpit checklist was
adjusted to allow the aircraft to be ready for push back as soon as the last
passengers boarded the plane. Some of the highly engaged pilots were also
reported to have volunteered to shadow some ground engineer to understand their
jobs better and the mechanism of how they go about their duties, this is reported to
have catalyzed better team work as they understand each other’s roles and duties better.
Although not all Southwest aircraft managed to be pushed back within 10
minutes after it landed, the effort of procedures alterations mentioned above did
bring spikes of increase in productivity as well as profitability to the airline,
contributing to the success Southwest Airlines to become one of the major LCC in
the US today.
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