Southwest's success made millionaires of workers

July 30, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

DALLAS -- To earn his pay, Mike Mitchel collects boarding passes and helps passengers onto airplanes. At age 56, he lives with his mother, takes a yearly vacation to Las Vegas when the room rates are cheapest, and counts movies and music CDs as extravagances.

"I like to save," Mitchel said. "I'll pick up a penny."

Mitchel, though, could readily afford to walk past any dropped change. As one of the 17 remaining active employees who helped start Southwest Airlines 35 years ago, he is rich. Quite rich.

Like all the airline's regular employees, he is a beneficiary of Southwest's profit-sharing program and owns about 50,000 shares of company stock, valued at about $800,000. And that's just a quarter of a portfolio that easily makes Mitchel a multimillionaire.

"I could retire tomorrow," he said.

So why doesn't he? After all, few long-tenured workers in the airline industry even have that option, given that the pensions and wages of most have been sharply reduced in recent years in bankruptcies and other cutbacks.

But for Mitchel and his Southwest colleagues from the first days - eight flight attendants, five operations workers and four executives, each a millionaire - it's not about the money. Ask them why they stick around and they mention frugality, pride in earning their keep. And they say they simply like to work.

That's not all. Bound together by Southwest's initial struggle to survive, they are reluctant to end careers that for many of the 17 have defined their lives. "My friends who left early at Southwest regret it so much," said Deborah Stembridge, who began as a flight attendant when the airline was just getting off the ground.

Accustomed only to success, it is as if they do not want to miss out on the rest of the story. They helped Southwest - the dominant airline at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport - send big-name airlines like Pan Am and Eastern to the junk heap, and more recently helped bring United and Delta to their knees.

Sure, it is hard work. But, Southwest workers wonder, what might be next?

"This place has pushed employees to the breaking point," said Dan Johnson, 55, who started in 1971 as a Southwest ramp worker and now works in air traffic control. "It's part of why we're successful."

"I don't need to work," Johnson added at a recent reunion. "In fact, I paid off the house two weeks ago."

The original workers were lucky to be hired on to what at the time seemed a long-shot business proposition. And they had to show some grit to stick it out.

Sandra Force, an elementary school teacher and one-time beauty pageant winner from Memphis, Tenn., was floating on a raft in the swimming pool of her Dallas apartment building one summer day in 1971, she said, hoping to attract the attention of a fellow tenant.

Rather than ask her out, however, he told her that a new local airline was hiring flight attendants. "`And you wear hot pants,'" he told her. "I got up off my raft, dried off and went into my apartment and called Southwest," Force said. "They said, `Please wear a dress,' because they wanted to see my legs." She was hired on the spot.

"My mother was devastated: `Sandra, if you were going to quit your teaching job, why didn't you go with a well-known airline like Braniff?' " Braniff, which competed directly with Southwest in Texas, later failed.

Along with her fellow flight attendants, clad in orange hot pants and white vinyl go-go boots to attract attention to the new airline, Force initially flew between Dallas, Houston and San Antonio.

"One time I did 12 trips back and forth to Houston in one day," she said. "My feet were killing me."

When Southwest's zany service and skimpy flight attendant outfits drew national attention, Force ended up on the February 1974 cover of Esquire magazine, a not altogether happy experience for a graduate of a Baptist college. The photo made her appear shapelier than she was.

"They airbrushed," she said. "They didn't tell me they were going to do that."

But it fitted Southwest's image. "We were selling sex," Southwest's current president and one of the original 17, Colleen C. Barrett, said of the early years.

Southwest has always taken an underdog attitude. And early on, at least, the company was an underdog. It took four years from incorporation to the airline's first flight in 1971, largely because other airlines sued to prevent Southwest from operating.

Southwest's scrappy lawyer at the time, Herbert D. Kelleher, is now its renowned chairman. And perhaps one of his greatest accomplishments was an ability to keep Southwest workers thinking like underdogs - despite the fact that the company now essentially dictates fares to the rest of the industry and has a stock market value nearly as big as all the other domestic airlines combined.

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