Southwest recently announced the appointment of Tom Nealon as its new President, replacing Gary Kelly. While Tom is well known inside the airline, not many may be familiar with his style outside Southwest. I’d like to share an edited excerpt from my book SOAR, which us gives a glimpse inside Tom Nealon’s mind. It shows he’s a good listener and empowers people to do their job well. Most of all, he’s a true Southwest man, upholding the company culture before all. That’s what gives me the confidence that Tom Nealon will continue to bolster the Southwest brand, like Gary Kelly before him.
Redesigning the boarding process
Susie Boersma Peterson is the Director of Network Operators Control–Planning at Southwest. In 2006, she was working in airport operations at Los Angeles Airport (LAX). The airline had been getting feedback from customers who were unhappy about the boarding process. Southwest was the first airline in the US that had unreserved seating.
What started happening was that people would turn up early at the gate to ensure a good seat, instead of relaxing, walking around the airport, buying stuff, et cetera, as most people do once they pass through security. While this led to faster turnaround times for Southwest planes, it also caused passenger anxiety, as well as a “cattle call” vibe around boarding, leading to a negative perception of Southwest by its own passengers and passengers on other airlines.
In response to the negative customer feedback, the marketing department suggested a re-design of the boarding process. Susie was tapped to play an operations role in it. At the first meeting, the idea of switching over to assigned seating was floated. Susie was skeptical but wasn’t vocal about her skepticism.
Tom Nealon, then the Chief Information Officer, sensed there was something on her mind and asked her for a one-on-one meeting.
Bring in Tom Nealon
Susie explained to Tom that she felt assigned seating might not work since it was too dramatic a change for established customers loyal to the Southwest brand. She said moving to assigned seating might imply going back on the brand promise of being different from other airlines. To her surprise and delight, Susie received the go-ahead to design a process to test alternatives to Southwest’s customers and eliciting feedback.
Susie and her team tested different procedures at San Diego Airport. During and after each test-boarding, the team observed and talked to passengers. They repeated the process every week, compared responses to each procedure with the others, and reported the results. At every point of the testing, Susie remembers, she didn’t want to let the customers down.
Once a month, she presented the findings to the CEO Gary Kelly, with Tom Nealon in tow, and gained an attentive audience. In effect, she was awarded ownership of the project.
“The senior management listened to me; they listened to customers,” says Susie.
The fastest project ever at Southwest
Ultimately, they tested five different boarding procedures. It clearly emerged that assigned seating would not work. Instead, the procedure they chose was a refinement of the previous one. While keeping seating free, and assigning groups like before, they additionally assigned boarding numbers based on how early the passenger had checked in. This eliminated the situation they’d had before where passengers crowded around the boarding gate, anxious lest their place in line be lost, unable to go shop or even take a restroom break.
Having chosen a new procedure, they then faced the challenge of implementation, especially tricky since the prior procedure had run unhindered for 30 years, and had become one of the most recognizable aspects of the Southwest brand. The marketing department led a comprehensive re-education campaign through posts on the Southwest website, a blog, and videos on screens at the boarding area.
Susie remembers with a smile that this was the fastest project ever executed at Southwest. In less than nine months they designed, tested, and implemented an entirely new procedure. All the while, Tom was her internal mentor, and actively gave her feedback during weekly reviews, ensuring that her confidence and passion for the project never flagged.
Doing things the Southwest way
The new boarding process, unveiled in the second half of 2007, epitomizes what it means to be Southwest. Always keeping customer happiness in mind, several departments collaborated on the process: Marketing came up with the insight that something needed to change; Operations put together plans for the re-design; and Customer Experience came in with IT to study how the different procedures they tested would impact turnaround times and passenger experience.
The execution of the project was a master class in close community collaboration and excellence in leadership. Susie was happy to receive ownership of the project, and direct audience with both Gary Kelly and Tom Nealon, who were attentive to her concerns. Ten years later, what she remembers most about the intense work that went into redesigning this key operations process is how it made her feel.
From designing the process together to testing the process to finalizing and marketing it to fine-tuning it in subsequent years, Southwest employees like Susie were the stars in charge of guaranteeing that a key customer-facing process was done right. And they were well supported by executives like Tom Neelan. It all boils down to Southwest’s simple, people-centric formula: if we have happy employees, they will make our customers happy. It works.