Ex-secretary helped turn airline into No. 1

Southwest's president is highest-ranking woman in the industry

October 27, 2007|By St. Petersburg Times

Forty years ago, a young Air Force wife from New England went looking for work as a legal secretary in her new hometown of San Antonio. Colleen C. Barrett went into the lobby of each office building over six stories tall and checked the directory for law firms.

She was hired by Herbert D. Kelleher, a lawyer who latched onto the idea of starting a no-frills, low-cost airline flying between San Antonio, Dallas and Houston. Southwest Airlines was born in 1971.

Co-founder Kelleher took over as chairman seven years later with Barrett as his assistant.

Today, Southwest still has cheap fares, an unstuffy corporate culture and quirks such as first-come, first-served seating. The airline also flies more passengers than any other U.S. carrier. As president, Barrett is the highest-ranking woman in the airline industry.

In an interview Thursday, Barrett, 63, talked about Southwest's "dress code" controversy, a new boarding scheme and what makes the airline so successful.

There's been a lot of press about employees telling passengers their clothing was inappropriate to fly Southwest, and the airline apologized to two of them, Kyla Ebbert, of San Diego (who was chastised for wearing a miniskirt and a summer sweater over a tank top), and Joe Winiecki, of Largo, Fla., (who was criticized for a T-shirt emblazoned with a sexual double entendre). Have employees complained that Southwest doesn't back them up anymore?

I got some pretty passionate employee communications as a result of those apologies. We had to put a stop to the utter, ridiculous exposure - pun intended - to what was going on. I did not apologize ever for the way our employees handled the Kyla situation. Our employee handled it just fine [telling her to cover up with a blanket].

You would have thought all this happened the day before she showed up on every talk show in America when it [actually] happened three months before. She got her apology; it wasn't the apology she wanted. The second situation ... I think we did owe the guy an apology. I don't think we handled that very well.

Wouldn't it be easier for Southwest to spell out what kinds of attire are not allowed on board?

[Some] employees said, "OK, give me a list." I said "no" because to define something means you limit it. You can't write a scenario for everything that happens in this life. You've got to use some common sense and good judgment.

Southwest is about to tweak how passengers board planes, with people assigned numbers to line up within the three boarding groups. Why give travelers reserved seats?

Everybody for years said that they wanted assigned seating. That was the No. 1 complaint we got in 35 years. But when you really started talking to people ... they just wanted the comfort of knowing they had a seat. And they hated standing in line. So, what we've done is give them assigned boarding positions. And so now they don't have to stand and wait and wait and wait.

At age 36, Southwest is hardly a startup carrier. How has Southwest been consistently profitable and so popular with customers?

We've grown and we've matured and we've had to make tough business decisions. We've had Wall Street tell us we're growing too fast and then we're growing too slow. But if you really study the whole history, you'll see that we've been very intentional about our growth. We've always had a few goals, making sure that we were properly leveraged, making sure our balance sheet was strong.

If you go to the customer service, I think one of our best traits is we've always under-promised and over-delivered. And I think one of the reasons that the general public accepts us is because we have never purported to be all things to all people. We know who we are.

Your duties as president are pretty unusual, overseeing Southwest's customer service and culture of teamwork. How does it work?

The customer service culture and the love is truly, absolutely part of our brand. Our mission is basically - I know it sounds a little Pollyanna-ish - to practice the Golden Rule every day and just do our very best.

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