Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Southwest Switching Its Standard?

Southwest Airlines was mentioned numerous times in both last week's lecture and its readings for its unique advantages. One of these key advantages stemmed from the uniformity of its air fleet. The argument was that Southwest's continued use of the same aircraft model created standardization that allowed its employees to work more efficiently in their daily tasks (for example loading and unloading passenger luggage).

As a college student with limited income, Southwest is my go-to airline for traveling. During the recent midsemester break I flew out of Pittsburgh on the standard 737 Southwest plane.... however coming back I flew on two of their new 800 planes. Anyone who regularly flies Southwest could pick up on the changes immediately: new chairs, different lighting, redesigned overhead bins, eight emergency exits (previously six), and being able to see the flight attendant giving the safety spiel among other things. The 800 planes will become increasing common in the near future; the company has plans to acquire over 70 of these new planes by the end of 2013. Some speculate that these larger planes will enable Southwest to expand its presence and routes further distances, most notably to Hawaii.

New, larger 800 series on the left with the smaller, standard 737 jet on the right.
I quickly got the impression after class that this plane change was a bigger deal than I previously assumed. Some of the major challenges this shift could bring to Southwest and their potential impact to Southwest's local cost, quick travel strategy include:

  • Adding a fourth flight attendant to adhere to federal regulations 
    • This change may disrupt the on-flight processes established for decades of travel with three attendants and require a reevaluation of the on-flight work process flow.
  • More seats 
    • Greater potential for flight delays from passengers. Currently, full flights struggle to leave on-time as high-B and C class passengers have delay choosing middle seats.
    • Longer time required to serve midflight refreshments since more customers to serve
  • Less efficiency for flight attendants
    • More time needed at gates to disembark passengers and for flight attendants to sweep through the rows checking for trash and lost items. 
  • Less efficiency for ground workers 
    • Larger size may require more time for on-ground tasks
    • Will have to be trained for new plane procedures while still working with 737 planes until the old planes are phased out.
After doing a little digging it appears that the concerns over the flight attendants are currently the most pressing issues given the current labor negotiations. Flight attendants are not paid when they are not flying so the delays in disembarking (it takes nearly twice as long to clear passengers) are actually quite costly to SWA's attendants while seemingly free labor for Southwest. Although the planes were likely purchased under a strategic growth initiative, what effect will it have an the company's HR strategy and relations? 

[1] http://triblive.com/business/headlines/4928122-74/stone-attendants-flight#axzz2j7haGj00
[2] http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2012-04-11/business/bs-bz-new-southwest-jet-20120411_1_southwest-airlines-southwest-fleet-southwest-and-airtran
[3] http://www.nycaviation.com/2012/04/photos-why-southwests-first-boeing-737-800-is-kind-of-a-big-deal/#.Um--r5TwIZ4

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