• Nairenon Consultancy

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

stage.


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.


References


Hajek, D. (2015, June 28). The man who saved Southwest Airlines with a ’10-Minute’

idea. Retrieved from: https://www.npr.org/2015/06/28/418147961/the-man-who-

saved-southwest-airlines-with-a-10-minute-idea


Gofford, J. (2014, June 12). Southwest Airlines: Quick turn arounds (case studies of

great companies). Retrieved from:

http://www.indysmallbiz.com/2014/06/southwest-airlines-quick-turn-arounds-

case-studies-of-great-companies/


Schlesinger, J. (2011, July 15). 10 minutes that changed Southwest Airlines’ future.

Retrieved from: https://www.cnbc.com/id/43768488


Schwartz, E. (2016, December 15). Why Southwest Airlines and Zara are similar.

Retrieved from: https://econlife.com/2016/12/fast-turnaround-time/


Tully, S. (2015, September 23). Southwest bets big on business travelers. Retrieved

from: http://fortune.com/2015/09/23/southwest-airlines-business-travel/

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