From Secretary to Company President

Colleen Barrett is the only woman to serve as the head of a major U.S. airline.

Colleen Barrett is president emeritus at Dallas, Texas-based Southwest Airlines. (Courtesy Southwest Airlines)
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Colleen Barrett started with Southwest Airlines in 1978 as a corporate secretary, then worked her way up to president and COO in 2001 before stepping down seven years later. She is the recipient of the National Aeronautic Association’s 2016 Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy, for public service of value to aviation. She spoke with Senior Associate Editor Diane Tedeschi in November. 

Air & Space: How would you describe the corporate culture at Southwest?

Barrett: We tell our employees from day one that we are in the customer service business. We just happen to provide airline transportation. We embrace our people as family members—and they know it. In the early days—the first five, six, seven, eight years—we were an unknown, a big question mark. Would we even survive? So back then, we almost had to go looking for applicants. Whereas today, the people who are applying at Southwest—it’s not just because they need a job. It’s Southwest they want to be at. And that’s an incredible tribute to our people.

If a young person wanted to work in airline management, do you think it would be worthwhile for them to get an MBA?

I don’t think that’s necessary. Herb [Kelleher, the CEO of Southwest from 1981 to 2001] and I never felt it was necessary because when we first started, we didn’t want to be like any other carrier. Now I’m not telling you that we don’t hire a lot of MBAs today. I’m just saying it was never a requirement when Herb and I were running the show. I’m not opposed to [graduate degrees], but I don’t think you really learn what you’re going to do with your life if you don’t get out there and live in it and experience it.

Tell me about something that Southwest Airlines did that seemed like a good idea but didn’t work out.

I can give you one that I personally did that bombed within 48 hours. Our employees were all over me to give bereavement fares to people that had to go to funerals at the last minute. Well, of course I go to Herb and the finance people, and I said: “Why can’t we give bereavement fares?” And they said: “Because our regular fares are already lower than any of our competitors bereavement fares.” I kept asking, and they said, “Okay, we’ll give you a 10 percent discount.” At the time, we were only short haul and I think maybe our daytime fare might have been $40 roundtrip Dallas to Houston.

I spent six weeks coming up with all these procedures and policies. And I sent out all the rules. Within 48 hours, I got 126 faxes from employees begging me to stop it. Every passenger that came up to the counter said they had a funeral to attend, and none of them had any proof. So I pulled it down. I was the laughing stalk of my peer group—they just loved it. I’ve made many mistakes, but that’s the one that sticks in my mind.

Can you tell me about a hire you made at Southwest that you are particularly proud of?

I am a pretty good observer when it comes to genuine attitude versus rehearsed interviewing. I make almost instant decisions, and it has nothing to do with liking or not liking a person as much as it has to do with looking in their eyes and knowing if the person would be a good fit within our group. So I can’t think of a bad hire that I made. I pride myself in finding the right spots for people and making the best use of their talents.

What are some of the challenges in maintaining success?

I think all CEOs have a challenge to keep their work group motivated—to not become complacent. I always agreed with Herb when he said: “If you start thinking that you’re better than anybody, you soon won’t be. If you start thinking that nobody can touch you, that’s when you start to fall.” When we started out, we did not purport to be all things to all people who wanted to fly. We were blunt and up front about that. We didn’t offer first class. Our flight attendants used to laugh and say every seat on Southwest was first class—because that’s the way you’re treated.

What is your opinion of the idea that airline profitability can only come at the expense of customer satisfaction?

I do not agree with that at all, though I doubt there are many people in my camp. When profit takes away from human decency and courtesy, it means you need to reinvent your business or you need to go into another business.

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