After over a half-century of flying customers from coast to coast, Southwest Airlines saw its first-ever negative profit year. Like most travel companies out there, they were struck by canceled trips and COVID-related shutdowns. However, the airline lost $3 billion in 2020, setting in motion the retirement of their longest-running CEO, Gary Kelly. Taking up his mantle is Robert Jordan, a 34-year veteran of the airline. The title isn’t the only thing he inherits from Kelly; he also receives a laundry list of challenges to recover from the pandemic. He sat down with the Associated Press to discuss what he plans to do next.
First Priorities for the New CEO
A couple of weeks ago, Southwest Airlines canceled 1,200 flights in two days. This begs the question of where someone goes to fix something like that. AP Airlines Writer David Koenig interviewed Jordan in Dallas and, after acknowledging the work he had in front of him, wanted to know where the Southwest CEO would begin.
“The company is not broken, but … I think there are some things that we can do to – I’ve used the word modernize. I don’t know if that’s a good word or not because it’s not like we’re behind, but I do think we need to work on, for example, our operational tools. I don’t know that (employees) have all the tools to manage the complex company that we are.”
Koenig pressed for more information, asking if that meant the rescheduling of flights and tickets, but Jordan responded that it was many things. He believes there are tools to find better solutions before irregular schedules (weather-based changes) occur.
The Future of Southwest Airlines
After the last few months of canceled flights and staffing shortages, customers have multiple things on their minds. What does the new Southwest CEO about changes to the customer experience?
“We’re known for doing things that make sense for our customers. No bag fees, no change fees make perfect sense. It’s very hard for me to imagine that we would go to assigned seating. There is absolutely no work on rethinking any of those things. But I do put (assigned seating) sort of in the never-say-never bucket.”
Lastly, it is no secret that many of the cancelations throughout the industry resulted from staffing shortages. Everything from COVID cases to disagreements over mask and vaccine mandates caused employees to leave. In response to questions about hiring, the CEO had this to say.
“We were hiring about 5,000 this fall, and if you remember, we had about 5,000 that took early retirement (in 2020 and 2021), so we’re making really good progress. It is harder than normal. We get plenty of applications. We just don’t get as many applications for open jobs as we used to. We’re hiring even more in 2022, which is why I suspect it takes into the summer to get caught up here.”