DALLAS — Bob Jordan, the CEO of Southwest Airlines (WN), has had an extremely tough week. During an employee rally in Baltimore on Wednesday, February 8, pilots and employees walked out on Mr. Jordan amid contract negotiations with the airline. Additionally, on Thursday, Southwest Chief Operating Officer Andrew Watterson testified at a Senate hearing in Washington, DC, in response to the holiday debacle.
After Jordan’s trip to Baltimore, it was reported by a Southwest pilot that Jordan flew back to Dallas, not on WN but on American Airlines (AA). People have speculated that he flew AA because labor relations at WN are currently so volatile that he cannot fly on his own airline. Moreover, whether or not this is the reason, the public’s sentiment against Bob Jordan is that he is to blame for the holiday meltdown; however, this perspective is misguided.
Mr. Jordan has led by example, and his handling of Southwest’s meltdown should be a standard for how airlines and their executive teams handle these difficult situations.
The Christmas meltdown was years in the making, and it is unfair to point the blame at Mr. Jordan, who took over the position of CEO only a year ago. In December, I wrote about the meltdown and how Southwest’s aged technology and chronic underinvestment caused it. Southwest handled the situation in the most professional way that they were able given their technological limitations—a situation that Jordan inherited.
For instance, Southwest immediately communicated with customers who were affected by the cancellations, and the company representatives were extremely transparent about the technical glitch. The airline has ensured that travelers caught in the meltdown would be, and have been, refunded and compensated for their troubles and recognition that Southwest needs to earn back the trust and confidence of its loyal customers.
This outreach and the sheer magnitude of the effort given the number of people impacted is unusual in the aviation industry.
The Buck Stops Here…
As mentioned earlier, the meltdown had been in the making for years. During the 2010s, Southwest suffered multiple small-scale meltdowns, but still, the leadership team did not listen to warnings from front-line employees. Unions representing Southwest had been raising concerns about the lack of adequate technology for years.
Southwest had utilized the same outdated technology for all of that time, so when a problem, such as in the crew scheduling system, occurred in the carrier’s software, most of the work to fix the issue needed to be completed manually. This resulted in the airline not knowing where crews or planes should have been.
Though he took over as CEO on February 1, 2022, Mr. Jordan had already begun implementing new changes and upgrading the technology that would have prevented the crisis from occurring; however, such changes take time, and although he did everything in his power to prevent the meltdown from occurring, it was not only his fault.
The meltdown was primarily the fault of Jordan’s predecessors. Southwest employees should give Mr. Jordan a chance because his strategy is based on the right priorities; however, it will take him time to overcome the challenges he inherited from his predecessor.
Mr. Jordan, who has been working at the airline since 1988, is an operationally oriented leader like Southwest founder Herb Kelleher. In October 2022, Mr. Jordan promoted Andrew Watterson to Chief Operating Officer. Before the meltdown, Watterson stated that the number one goal is to upgrade the airline’s technology and give front-line workers the tools they need to help customers and employees. However, nearly two decades of underinvestment in technology will take years to overcome.
This is what happened in December when the house of cards fell down as a simple winter storm broke the outdated 1990s operating system.
For his part, Mr. Jordan immediately claimed responsibility for the meltdown and vowed to reset the operations of the airline. He has stated that the airline is working with GE Digital to add new functions to the software that Southwest uses to help schedule crews, called SkySolver. Among other investments in the airline’s technology, Bob Jordan has vowed to make the necessary changes to ensure that what happened in December 2022 will never happen again.
Leadership and Trust
Throughout his time at Southwest, Mr. Jordan has led the airline to be one of Glassdoor’s Best Places to work for 13 consecutive years, which is an incredible feat. He is also responsible for many WN initiatives, including the revamp of the Rapid Rewards loyalty program in 2011, the merger and acquisition of AirTran Airways in 2014, and the switch to a new reservations system in 2017—among other accomplishments.
Additionally, during the pandemic, Mr. Jordan ensured that the airline did not lay off a single employee during one of the hardest times for the airline industry.
In January, Mr. Jordan announced multiple steps the airline is taking to prevent any operational meltdown in the future, including investing over US$1bn to upgrade and maintain the airline’s IT systems. He also announced that the airline is launching other initiatives, such as improving the internal “advanced warning dashboard” to include additional metrics such as the number of open crew lines so that the airline has a better sense of when something bad is happening.
Southwest has also decided to keep its temporary workforce to manually process crew schedule changes which was helpful during the FAA NOTAM and which will allow the airline to be better equipped to deal with disruption. Similarly, the Board of Directors has created an Operations Review Committee which will provide Mr. Jordan with the support necessary to maintain his strategic direction. These steps among others will help WN further prevent another meltdown from occurring.
If anyone can regain the trust of employees and customers, it is Mr. Jordan. He has worked for Southwest for over 30 years, serving in more than 15 different roles. He knows the airline and the operation better than anyone within the company. Mr. Jordan’s handling of the meltdown was both swift and efficient.
His sincere acknowledgment of mistakes and his commitment to learn from these mistakes and make changes immediately demonstrate his leadership.
In times of crisis, companies need leaders who can recognize mistakes and make the necessary course corrections as needed. Mr. Jordan deserves credit and is on his way to winning back the trust of Southwest’s employees and loyal customers.
Featured image: N8817L, Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-8 MAX, @KSLC. Photo: Michael Rodeback/Airways