More to Luv?
Many are watching to see whether Southwest can keep its culture intact if its deal to buy AirTran is approved
By JENALIA MORENO Copyright 2011 Houston Chronicle
Jan. 22, 2011, 12:36AM
Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways expect to merge later this year. Here are their operations now out of Hobby Airport:
• Daily flights: 127 to 30 cities
• Houston employees: 2,808
• Daily flights: Five to Atlanta
• Houston employees: 25
Source: Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways
Less than two months after Southwest Airlines announced it would acquire AirTran Airways, the Southwest pilots union threw a party for their counterparts at an airport hotel in Atlanta, an AirTran hub.
"The whole purpose of that was to welcome them to the family," said Jacob North, a Southwest pilot and spokesman for the Southwest Airlines Pilots' Association. Southwest employees commonly refer to their co-workers as family.
It's part of a signature approach to employee relations and customer service that the airline calls Luv — describing a culture, as well as playing on the name of Southwest's home airport, Dallas Love Field.
LUV is even the airline's ticker symbol on the New York Stock Exchange.
Passengers and airline employees will be watching to see whether Southwest's new associates feel the Luv if regulators approve the AirTran deal later this year.
In September, the two airlines surprised many in the industry by announcing they would combine, bringing AirTran's more than 8,000 employees into Southwest's team of nearly 35,000.
Southwest's famed corporate culture is studied in business schools and is evident among executives as well as rank-and-file employees at airports and on planes. Its headquarters has basketball and volleyball courts and hallways lined with photos illustrating the airline's 40-year history.
What most companies - including AirTran - call "human resources" is the "People Department" at Southwest.
Two decades ago, Southwest formed a culture committee to enrich its spirit.
"Southwest has a very special brand based on a unique culture that fosters innovation, fun at the workplace," said Martin Roll, brand strategist with Martin Roll Co. "AirTran is not necessarily known to share these aspects of corporate culture and can be characterized as a more traditional airline culture."
Fun at Halloween
Many Southwest employees don costumes on Halloween. Last October, executives dressed up as characters from the Toy Story movies - CEO Gary Kelly was Woody the cowboy and Mike Van de Ven, executive vice president and chief operating officer, wore a Buzz Lightyear costume.
And every February, Kelly delivers a state of the company address at six locations, including SeaWorld in Orlando and San Diego, where employees can play after the speeches.
"If we're treating employees right, they're going to be keeping the customers happy. They will keep coming back. That will make shareholders happy," said Ginger Hardage, Southwest's senior vice president of culture and communications. She dressed up as Barbie last Halloween.
Southwest plans an orientation for AirTran employees after the merger, and Hardage said the merged airline will try to take the best of both company cultures.
'People are excited'
AirTran employees say they have felt welcomed by Southwest workers since the acquisition was announced.
"There's a sense of kumbaya," said Travis Bruce, an AirTran flight attendant and vice president of the group's union. "People are excited. Let's get this done."
At Palm Beach International Airport, Southwest workers made a cake decorated with the tails of Southwest and AirTran jets and delivered it to AirTran employees, said AirTran spokesman Christopher White.
"There is a palpable excitement at AirTran to join the Southwest family," White said.
AirTran employees will get at least one benefit from the acquisition because Southwest workers, who are all unionized, receive higher pay than their AirTran counterparts.
"They're probably all going to get pay raises. What's there not to like?" said Betsy Snyder, director of corporate and government ratings at Standard & Poor's.
Both companies are low-cost carriers, which might make the merger of employee cultures smoother than in a merger between low-cost and legacy airlines, those that existed long before deregulation of the industry more than three decades ago, Snyder said.
"It's not a situation where this is my job, I'll only do this. The job description is not as limited as you have at some of the legacy airlines," she said.
She points to thesomewhat rocky merger of US Airways and America West in 2005.
Flight attendants and pilots at the merged company have yet to combine work forces and still operate under their old contracts. Part of the problem was that US Airways was a legacy carrier while America West was a low-cost carrier, she said.
Bruce, the AirTran flight attendant, prefers the employee model at low-cost airlines.
"We're cut from a different cloth than the legacy airlines," he said. "We're used to rolling up our sleeves to make it work."
Humor and more
And passengers hope employees can help make the merger work.
During a recent flight to Las Vegas, Houstonian Cindy Clifford laughed when a Southwest employee referred to the city as "Lost Wages." Upon her return, her checked bag arrived at Hobby a few hours later than she did and an apologetic Southwest worker offered Clifford a $50 travel voucher if she would return to the Houston airport later that night to pick up her suitcase.
The owner of the Clifford Group public relations firm flies Southwest three times a month and likes the employees' sense of humor and their eagerness to fix things when they go wrong.
AirTran employees may not put on the comedy show characteristic of Southwest cabin crews but are still friendly and helpful, said Barbara Agnich, who got a taste of their attitudes during the recent snowstorm in Atlanta. She ended up spending more than 24 hours at the Atlanta airport awaiting a flight to Houston, and AirTran employees impressed her as they remained calm with irate passengers when no airline's planes could depart because of the snowstorm.
"The representatives were really, really nice and helpful," said Agnich, who visited relatives in Houston recently.
When her flight finally took off for Houston, the flight attendants doled out plenty of snacks to the hungry and appreciative passengers, she said.