Kelleher: Southwest Has Never Furloughed an Employee — Here's Why

Someone far more brilliant and erudite than I contrived the best example of airline industry gallows humor: "How do you make a million dollars in the airline industry? You invest $100 million." The frequently bleak state of the industry sometimes inspires even the most unacquainted to become self-styled "experts" on the causes or solutions.

Southwest Airlines has been profitable for 38 consecutive years and has never furloughed an employee. Why is Southwest different? The Southwest difference is our people, and interacting with them on a daily basis is my fountain of youth and inspiration. Still, it would take away from their accomplishments that have been forged by sweat, brain, and muscle equity, to imply that Southwest’s singular record has been easy, preordained, or guaranteed. Nothing is further from the truth.

Southwest suffers from the same ills that plague the rest of the industry: cycles of boom followed by bouts of financial Armageddon, severe competition, and overregulation. Our exception is attributable to the way our employees have responded to these challenges by taking care of each other and taking care of our customers.

Our folks, like most airline employees, work hard, but hard work isn’t sufficient if you forget about the people paying the bills, the customers. We’ve found that the folks we hire, along with our longtime veterans, share some personality traits. They possess the Warrior Spirit, which includes working hard, a desire to be the best, perseverance, and courage. They display a servant’s heart by following the Golden Rule, treating others with respect and loving our customers. And, even on bad days, they manage to keep a fun-LUVing attitude, enjoying what they do, and celebrating each other’s successes.

Watch CNBC Titans, Herb Kelleher, premiering Thursday, July 13 at 9 p.m. ET, with reairs at 10 p.m., midnight and 1 a.m.


Herb Kelleher is a founder of Southwest Airlines Co. and served as Executive Chairman from March 1978 to May 2008 and as President and CEO from September 1981 through June 2001. He graduated with honors from Wesleyan University, where he was an Olin Scholar and where his major was English and his minor Philosophy, and from NYU Law School, where he was a Root-Tilden Scholar.