SocraticGadfly: Southworst: Just another legacy airline

September 27, 2015

Southworst: Just another legacy airline

I am becoming more and more convinced of the fact that Southwest, if not yet fully a "legacy" airline, is becoming more and more like one.

Its vaunted hedging on fuel prices has backfired with the current oil glut. Even before that, many of its flights were only a few dollars cheaper than other airlines, even with the allowance for free checked bags.

And, even before Herb Kelleher fully handed over the reins to Gary Kelly, when I still lived in Dallas, it got a massive fine from the FAA for poor maintenance records, documentation, and possible actual poor maintenance history, as I note here (unauthorized parts) and here (the biggie) and here (the Blue Bell-like length of knowing about this). Southworst got fined $10M over that, but bitched enough to get it reduced to $7.5M. (And allegedly may have had a death threat against the wife of a whistleblower.)

After Herb let go of the reins, it muffed taking over Frontier because of shoddiness.

I have finally gotten to enjoy and use some vacation time, and for the second trip in a row, Southwest has had a delayed flight.

(And, I now realize, going through this blog, that Southworst flew me late back in 2009.)

So, editing a direct message on Twitter to Southworst?

Next spring, you will NOT be my first choice. I'll see who's available from Bush instead of Hobby, or even with a multi-stop flight, but closer to me, my options from Shreveport. (Actually, my flight out to LA was delayed 15 minutes, so, really, 3 of my last 4 flights have been delayed on these last two vacations.)

Oh, and after learning of the delay by calling on my cell phone (after your sucky voice recognition couldn't recognize "Los Angeles") I was TWICE disconnected when it attempted to transfer me to an agent.

The first longer delay, on my summer vacation? Plane mechanical problem. In its email alert for the 45-minute delay on my flight of later today, Southworst has no explanation. Since this is the first leg of this flight, I wonder if it's having to shuffle planes. (A Twitter reply confirms maintenance issues.) And so, at some point, given some of its past history, this now becomes a safety issue. Especially since the FAA fined it just two months ago over aircraft maintenance.

In turn, that follows on a 2014 fine of $12 million for failure to follow FAA compliance. As one would expect, Southworst is fighting this one, too, claiming it was just a single plane involved. Per my blog post at the time, the FAA said not true.

I told the person who responded to my DM it wasn't his fault. It's, rather, the fault of a company that has rested on its laurels for a decade.

Oh, and the myth that Southwest is better than others at on-time percentage? Not even close. It's near the bottom. And, no, the AirTran acquisition didn't make that worse; AirTran was better than pre-merger Southwest.

But, let's not blame all this on current CEO Gary Kelly. If I'm puncturing balloons, it's Kelleher's, not just Southworst's. Given that the maintenance issues go back before 2005, that's on his watch. That said, ugh that Kelly serves on the president's jobs competitiveness council.

But, things have gotten worse under Kelly. The on-time rate is worse. The maintenance problems are worse. The falsifying of maintenance records is almost totally on his watch. The fighting of FAA fines for this is all his.

Hell, at least Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn had the decency to step down (perhaps to avoid the board there canning him). Last week, I compared VW's FarMoreSmogging to Blue Bell's Triple Listeria Swirl, and wondered which is worse. Well, Kevin Kruse hasn't stepped down at the privately-run Blue Bell, either. Maybe it's something in the Texas business waters.

Honestly, I'd like to hear these words out of Kelly's mouth, and not to me personally, but in an AP story:
Dear customers of Southwest in particular and airline passengers in general: 
I can't deny it. Southwest as an airline has gotten worse in the last decade. Our on-time rate has gotten both absolutely worse and comparatively worse versus other airlines. Our maintenance problems have sadly gained national renown. 
I intend to address this as part of a new legacy at Southwest. To better focus on this, I intend to step down as chairman of the board. I also hope to find my successor as Southwest's CEO as part of this focus on addressing our decade's worth of problems.
Sadly, I'll never hear even the first paragraph, let alone the second.

(As noted by the Houston Chronicle, because of an ad in its pages, while it's long on PR and short on specifics, United just did something exactly like I'm suggesting.)

To me, Southwest is kind of like Apple. Some people think that because they're different, they're automatically special, and better. And that's not true. And, I invite people to be more skeptical. That's why I posted the link to Southworst's on-time rate, so that it wouldn't just be my anecdotal claims.

Finally, speaking once more of the FAA.

Fifteen minutes (or a few more) on the tarmac isn't enough to trigger official action from the FAA. But, given that we were already running nearly an hour late (not 45 minutes), it was enough to trigger me emailing the FAA. I have gotten an official acknowledgement email back. Again, it may not be enough to mean anything. But, given Southworst's ongoing history of FAA fines, and refusal to pay FAA fines, and the fact that I mentioned my delays were all aircraft-related, not weather-caused, maybe it will mean something.

That said, I'm not a blanket Southwest hater.

I do appreciate that Southwest may have somewhat more flight convenience than other airlines, as it has at times for me. I do appreciate that it's often cheaper (though not as much as it would have you believe, and not as much as it used to be).

I sincerely mean what I said above about what I wish Gary Kelly would say. Because I think Southwest, in becoming somewhat like a legacy airline, has more and more of that type of culture.

As a consumer, I'd like Southwest to get better. I'd like it to be at a point where I don't feel the need (as have many others) to use the "Southworst" name for it. And, I'd like people a grade (or three or four) above the social media managers, but still a few pay grades below Gary Kelly, to "get it." Although, maybe they do. But, if they do, I'd like to see them lead a colonels' coup.

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