Is Southwest Airlines Destroying Its Culture By Firing Too Many People?

The old saying on the internet is that when a title is phrased as a question the answer is always no. That doesn’t always hold, at least for United, but a major union at Southwest should have considered the implications of the maxim before spouting off.

The Transportation Workers Union, which represents flight attendants and ground workers at Southwest Airlines, is up in arms because the airline has fired 468 of their members in the last two and a half years.

  • The TWU represents about 12,000 groundworkers and 15,000 flight attendants at the airline

  • So they’ve dismissed 1.7% of the union’s members since January 2015

  • That’s 7/10ths of 1% per year.

Southwest doesn’t appear to be taking the approach of some firms that automatically let go the bottom 10% of their workforce each year.

Instead, Southwest has dismissed only 17% of the employees who have had discliplinary actions in the past two and a half years. Put another way, most employees subject to disciplinary actions get to keep their jobs by more than a 5:1 margin.

The union calls this “outright hostility to the workforce” and claims it “has obliterated morale.”

No doubt it’s damaged the morale of employees who have been fired, although the morale of those employees may not have been strong to begin with.

Based on my own Southwest flights over the past couple of years, and experiences shared by other passengers, it doesn’t appear to be harming passenger experience as claimed. In fact the opposite may be true: Southwest’s willingness to shed employees it deems problems may well be key to maintaining the morale of the rest of their workforce.

In my experience happy motivated employees:

  • Feel they are paid fairly
  • Like and respect colleagues
  • See themselves as a part of something bigger than themselves, on a mission

At Southwest employees see themselves on a mission – to have fun, provide a good experience on short flights, and to beat the legacy airlines United, Delta, and American.

Southwest’s creation story gives it the advantage of having been the underdog fighting to survive. Employees are in this together as friends working towards the same goal. As a result they try their hardest.

In contrast where employees who shirk or provide poor service and poor performance affects neither pay nor continued job prospects, morale suffers. The best employees become discouraged from doing their best.

Southwest Airlines is unique in that it’s the largest US airline for domestic travel, it’s unionized, and it maintains a strong culture. If Southwest capitulates and refuses to let go even 17% of employees receiving discipline, or 7/10ths of one percent of its groundworkers and flight attendants each year, they jeopardize that culture by sapping the morale of the strong performers in the company.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. […] This isn’t strictly a union versus non-union issue. While in general Delta’s non-union flight attendants have seemed happier with their jobs and friendlier to customers than American’s, Southwest Airlines unionized flight attendants are generally more than pleasant too. Southwest does, however, manage to push out disgruntled employees, about 1/7th of 1% per year. […]


  1. He? With employment law, gender equality, equal opportunity, labour union, etc., it surely not easy not fired an employee. There’s a procedure to follow. Unless the said employee fone something really-really BAD, more often than not, the abovementuoned instrument will give them time to make amends with whatever they’ve done wrong.

    Are those union stupid? Saying the employer should keep bad employee?

  2. What a joke this article is. The employees used to be the most valuable asset at SWA, but now we are swAA. The “Luv” airline has taken over American as the ” hAAte” airline. The write ups are pure silliness. Management has sexually harassed female ramp union members in Dallas and then transferred to Orlando. Theirs same manager wrote up hard workers for minor infractions that managers themselves were guilty of. If you don’t think it affects you, it does. Many transferred out or found better jobs at BNSF running freight trains, and the morale went south. Not a good feeling when your bag doesn’t make t to your destination because we are understaffed and overworked and forced to work OT many days in a row. This company went to hell when gAAry took over as CEO and adopted Don Carty 101 management tactics. We love the job and carrier but we distrust and despise our leadership. Lead with LUV not hAAte , like Herb wanted. Even Crandall would be a welcome addition to replacing Kelly.

  3. Wow, what a story. And I was actually thinking of working at Southwest 5 years ago. I’m so glad I didn’t. We have many former SWA workers at AA now and they all told me not to go there, that the company has changed.
    I also remember hearing years ago that if you work at Southwest and manage to pass your probation that it is “impossible to get fired because the TWU will protect you”. That is not the case now. This is a really different company that the one founded by Herb Kelleher.

  4. Gary there is a process in the CBA, the TWU knows this as does the company. My bet is some of these terminations were people on their probationary period (first six months) during which point the company can get rid of anyone for even the slightest infraction and there is nothing the union can do.

  5. Gary, your observations are anecdotal … the same thing for which you constantly criticize the TSA.

    Your observations do not support or refute any allegation directed toward Southwest or any other airline or frequent flyer program. Of course, you are entitled to your opinion, but it’s just that.

  6. DFW Dave,

    Stay at AA. Don’t work at SWA. Even with no pension, the CS policy is much better and you can find a side gig.

  7. Really? Come on you guys, SWA is a great company, and my wife worked there for over 26 years. She was a culture committee member as well. Most likely, now that SWA is hiring Millennials, its my guess that your newer hires have a sense of entitlement, and don’t understand the real world. Any business that is worth it’s salt isn’t going to put up with any bullshit from it’s newer, or even older employees.
    I suggest that you not bash your employers, you spoiled little shits! If you don’t like where you work, quit whining and go find a different job.

  8. I’m guessing the union is just making up excuses because they want the annual dues!

  9. I work for Southwest and have been there 10 years I also worked at 2 other Legacy airlines and Southwest was the best decision I ever made. We are the highest paid in the industry with the best work rules and we are fully unionized and not contract employees like other airlines. The union are putting out to tatics for negoatiating antics. Southwest hires the best and if you can’t be the best then you don’t fit in. Most people who are fired are the ones on probation. While on probation you have to prove you are the best and live the Southwest way. If not then that’s when you are let go.

  10. As a former employee, I can tell you that certain parts of the corporate and field are very toxic culture. Some are great, some are terrible. I left because of the terrible leadership in my area. It’s not company wide but it’s not isolated either.

  11. @Ron I specifically said that anecdotally their culture seems fine but that was largely an aside, the argument is over the importance of weeding out underperformers in order to have a strong culture and the infinitesimally small percentage of employees being let go.

  12. This story is a joke. I just ended my job at swa by quitting and not being fired. Without entering in details what department I worked I can tell you that the union is right. Southwest has taken advantage of every single loop of the contract to exploit the employees. The reason you don’t see it harming as much the customer experience is because of all the supervisors and 3rd party companies they have hired to supervise their employees. At this point employees are nothing but obligated to swallow their pride and do their best. Hope that the job they are doing is enough despite with people with more seniority (20+ years) leaning on you. To think you are being watched by sups, 3rd party companies and customers, will put an extreme pressure on you like I never thought it would. I come from other airline, and I’ll let you know right now, I’ve never seen such thing. The morale HAS GONE DOWN, specially while contract negotiations because the company wouldn’t want to negotiate what we really need which wasn’t a raise, but work conditions. Benefits, specially the flying ones can be rarely used because the flights are always full or employees themselves leave or bump us (due to morale issues). If you are traveling for vacation and the company is short, they can pull you right out of the gate to give u a “Mandatory” shifts without caring if you are loosing money on ur vacation. A lot of employees are being penalized by supervisors that don’t do their job. How can you expect a ramp new hire to help out if they prefer to sit in the office all day instead of training them at whatever job they have to be? How do you expect an employee to deal alone with delayed flights, working mandatory overtime, ignore their request to send a break relief after working non-stop 6 hours (2 hrs overtime)? And I mean this being a 12 hr. shift already dealing with customers requests and delayed flights. All because the “contract” doesn’t say you can get a break after your last 15 min break after lunch. Come on it’s about humanity and how we treat our OWN employees. How you going to put more pressure on flight attendants that already have eating disorders because most of the time SWA schedules them nonstop 8,9,10,11 hour duty day. Do the math. Deplaining takes 10-12 minutes, cleaning other 5-8, boarding about 20 minutes and they expect us to close doors 10 minutes prior. If the company would provide crew meals then cool but they don’t. Even on international flights, the crew meal was an unhealthy snack. Now it changed to a sandwich, but if there is a crew change in the destination, the crew coming back won’t have food. Imagine working that long without a chance to get off the plane to get food because southwest is either late all day or just doesn’t schedule a plane being on the ground for more than 40 minutes.. Resting for flight attendants become a serious issue. The company normally schedules a 9:30 -14 hour rest period at the end of your duty. You probably think it is enough but think about it. If you had 10 hours of rest, the clock starts 30 minutes after brakes have blocked in. It takes up to 30 more minutes to get to some hotels (hoping the shuttles are there on time). You have to shower and eat, so that takes another hour off. Some ladies need some time to get ready so that takes an hour or two and have to be at the airport 40-50 minutes before the flight leaves, so you have to leave the hotel an hour before. You really end up having about 5-6 SLEEP TIME to recover from a 10-12 hour days. It hits harder those who arrive around 2am and leave before noon. The conditions of working in this company has gotten to the point where a lot of us are visiting therapist for developed anxiety disorders and other mental conditions. I had to quit because I knew my job performance was severely affected due to the developed disorders and could potentially put at risk other co-workers or customers, only to realize unemployment won’t even cover you until you find a job. The culture of Southwest was to take care of their people before their customers and when I got hired I pledged to serve my customers because my company saw me as an asset not a number.

    So do me a favor writer. You have no idea what are the working conditions because all you do as a customer is check in online, drop your bag if anything and sit on a plane asking for beverages as is a flight attendant is your own personal Butler. If you are going to talk about how true something is, make sure u get to the source (i.e. employees or former employees) without posting some articles full assumptions. Get your story right. A writer is only as good as what it writes.


  13. Regarding the millennials and the entitlement allow me to enlight you. Millennials are the most being hired now yes but we don’t come with a sense of entitlement. If anything people with seniority are the ones to feel entitled. Wether it was because they been there since herb, or when the company didn’t do well, or their year of service. If you would know anything about the union negotiation and millennials, you would know that the senior people were DEMANDING a raise. Milennials didn’t care about that all we cared is about feeling accepted at work. That the company sees us as an asset. We didn’t want a raise. People like your wife did because they were topped out. We didn’t want RETROACTIVE pay, people like your wife and SWA brats did. The only reason THIS contract passed on the ground and on the air is because millennials voted yes while senior people like your wife wanted more and felt entitled to more money. In fact, the reason why these conctracts passed is because mayority of us are now milennials.

  14. Please don’t let me start with SWA senior people racist attitude against ex-AirTran employees and other minorities. Or some employees including pilots attitude against LGBT community.

    PS. No, I’m not from AirTran, but I feel embarrassed the way they have been treated. It goes against my own personal values, and what I got hired for.

  15. Well, anything that reduces the number of unionized employees is a step in the right direction.

  16. Then don’t fly SWA, James. Your jackass attitude is what SWA specifically does NOT look for when hiring. As for the majority being on probation, that is not so. They are writing people up for anything, yet want you to bend rules when they need bags delivered during short turnarounds. The best way to beat SWA is follow their own rules. Doing it the company way resulted in SWA getting more mishandled bags and a bad reputation. Doing it the old school, real airline way resulted in a turnaround and being on time , reduced lost luggage and high morale. The management ruined it and we now follow the company’s rules and they don’t like it one bit. SWA management in Dallas on the ramp had a reputation for sexual harassment (That one guy since transferred to mco) and supervisors regularly showed managers the pics of the Swa secretaries they were having sex with, including the pics they sent of themselves and their genitalia to the supervisor they were doing. These pics got passed all over the managerial ranks. You think the AA / TWU fiasco was bad? Well add AirTran to Swa and it was Charles Manson meets the partridge family. The job is still good, but we no longer look forward to coming to work. And for the jack wagon that says quit, well many have. The railroads have hired a lot. Most just find a side business now and keep Swa as plan b. The place used to be respectful, now it resembles American at Miami international, with a pinch of cocaine. It’s dog eat dog now. Management sets a terrible example

  17. THIS IS THE PROBLEM WITH UNIONS. They insist that the bad ones stay when they should be FIRED. Like teachers who work until they are 60s do not relate to the kids, do not care about their work and are still teaching the same lesson plan they taught 20 yrs ago .
    When you keep a bad union worker who does not do their job everyone else gets bad and moral goes down the toilet. Remember it was the Union that Killed Eastern Airlines

  18. The unions get paid the highest in the industry and still hold out for more while the non-unionized workforce gets paid significantly under market value. It is extremely difficult to terminate a union employee, to the detriment of morale and success. Every person that got terminated made poor choices. Did you expect everyone to get a medal just for showing up when they actually do show up? Millennials for having great ideas that senior staff are too stubborn to adapt to so we hire for excellence but, you know, as long as it isn’t in your department. Millennials are stoked just to get to work at SWA but they are defeated at every turn with low pay, old-timer attitudes, and poor Leadership not holding their people accountable when they are bad apples.

  19. Having been management at at a major carrier and held many hearings….there is due process with union members.
    Yes for 90 days of probation a new hire could be fired st will and the vast majority was caused by attendance..after 90 days we used a 3 level system and when you committed your 3rd infraction you were advised that the next step was termination…so yes once you are a union member it might take months for termination..

  20. Southwest Airlines sucks Under gAAry Kelly. You’d think you work at American now. Never saw the day I would rather work for AA . Herb ran a good airline and gAAry took it and ran morale into the dirt. You need a union here from the corrupt managers. Even the Sups are talking of organizing into a specialized union to protect them from Managers who have already stripped their sick time benefits. It’s a shame they pay people at HQto scroll the internet looking for bad PR on Facebook and other social media, instead of running an airline

  21. I work at a small station on the ramp. I’ve been here a year and love it…best job ever. I’m at -7 in my points. The only problem I see here are the senior agents that get catered to by the sups. They do the least amount of work in the AM but do the most complaining. Yet the sups don’t do much to correct them. All the sups care about is pushing the planes on time. The union does truly protect the lazy workers. We have a fair amount of them here. But it is what it is. I just come in and enjoy the people I work with, the junior agents. BTW not all the seniors are bad. There are many good ones and they even call out the lazy ones.

  22. Yes, as a 25+ year employee of SWA along with many more senior employees who worked under Herb, we have seen Kelly back-stab Herb and destroy the “employees before profits” culture that USED to be at SWA. Now we have an arrogant spread-sheet punk CEO who thinks his “rule by intimidation” culture where he has “secret shoppers”, passengers Gary rewards with cash and free trips to SPY on the flight attendants. The “Family “Airline Herb created? I don’t think so. So, what are we to do? One thing, number one, get rid of the bastard. There’s one of him and thousands of us. We don’t work for Gary. Dead or alive, we work for Herb. and Gary is supposed to work for us, but he seems to think he’s the Grand Wizard, but its the other way around. Punk. He didn’t have a job until Herb gave him one, then back stabbed him just like he back stabs us. Lets get all the Unions together and sign a vote of No Confidence against Gary, maybe rent a couple of billboards at the entrance of some of the major airports, inform ALL Media (Yeah Gary, we know you made us sign those “don’t squeal to the general public about the real incest in the family” papers, else we’d lose our jobs, but screw you, a LOT of us are retirees you can’t intimidate (you never did anyway) or fire us, so where’s your power now, dumb shit? A LOT can be done without you even knowing WHO to fire. The Media is always interested in SWA, and to see full-page ads in newspapers (Yes, it’s worth it!) informing the public of what the workforce thinks of him would generate MILLIONS of dollars of FREE publicity to the cause when the media does their own reporting on it, putting it on television, radio, and print. Let’s print up “DUMP GARY” bumper stickers, T-shirts, create a real campaign to rid SWA of this Cancer that is destroying the company. I’m sure you’ve all heard how Gary had Herb “escorted” AKA” thrown out” of Dallas HQ by security because Herb was angry at what Gary was doing to the company. Imagine being thrown out of YOUR OWN house?! Who the HELL does Kelly think he is, GOD? Total blasphemy. I don’t know about you, but I’m so sick of this guy, If he even knew the thoughts I was having about him, he would quit SWA and move thousands of miles away and become a fugitive on a deserted island. Your 15 min. of fame is up Kelly. Now, we’re coming after you for what you did to Herb and the company. The “Tell-All” book on the REAL SWA, and REAL GARY KELLY is currently in the works being written with input by lots of senior pilots, rampers, ops agents, provisioning, Flight attendants, maintenance, mechanics, appearance technicians, cargo and everyone else who’s suffered as a result. Major publishers have shown interest in being the publisher to get the contract to do the book. Lets stick together, for we know its what Herb would want. He was a fighter, even when Gary went to court to “shut him up” and make sure he couldn’t speak ill of the “New SWA”. Another cover up attempt by Gary on Herb as on us. As Benjamin Franklin said, “If we don’t all hang together, then most surely we will all hang separate.” It’s time to show Kelly that its the employees who made, and continue to make SWA. Not him. As the saying goes, “One monkey don’t stop the show”.

  23. The mechanics are giving gAAry an aluminum enama. Contract negotiations are taking way too long

  24. hahaha….take it from a employee whom became disable on job site….ripped my supraspinatus tendon beyond repair followed TWC555 handbook to the tee ,But union keeps whom they want. I was terminated due to being out passed the allotted time. while at SWA i received MEDICARE 8 months before termination.But SWA didn’t at that time accept disabled person…And if they did I wasn’t recommended by TWC 555. As I reflect on my hiring process at headquarters in DALLAS,TX, remember being told that if we don’t accept being apart of the union, we wouldn’t be hired. So, therefore you (we) are a employee of a texas company…check your w-2 for verification .., TEXAS DOES NOT HONOR UNIONS…It is a non unionized are hired in the state of TEXAS not in the state you are employed can be fired for no REASON.(state law).I should have seen this all along….company started with a LAWYER, and a BUISNESSMAN…changed state law to travel to nearby state without traveling through DALLAS,TX…..POWER IS IN THE HANDS OF THOSE WHOM FEED US…..NEVER US BOTTOM FEEDERS (RAMP).

  25. Welcome to the new SWA. The Dallas ramp has never been worse. You should call the hall and ask for the union lawyer. Try to get reinstated.

  26. My son was fired at Southwest Airlines during his probationary period for.
    1. While working with a plane his badge fell off and was flown to another city, they were going to fly it back the next day but didn’t Station admin said it would not be an occurrence, but it was.
    2. Employees do a lot of shift switching and giving up shifts. He did that and put in the wrong time and tried to cancel it but it didn’t go through.
    3. He was there for his shift, but did not have my side badge called brian clowers. head person in control told him he was good just hurry up. but they counted that against him.

    Does Southwest have a policy concerning let employees go for infractions like these. Is it subjective. One supervise said it is alright another said it is not.
    My son was a hard worker ,worked 30 hours without sleep, worked as a team player, when he was mando he went, never been late except for the brain clower. In my opinion my son should get his job back.
    He has already being train in Dallas, and his probation period would have been up in May.
    None seems to care about him been a hard worker. Southwest should give him another chance since these infractions are not serious.
    Can anyone help us! My son wants his job back at St. Louis Lambert Airport! No one will listen to us.
    Help!!!!! All we want is for him to get his JOB back. This is UNFAIR!

  27. First of all, call the Dept of Labor on SWA. The STL station has a history of racism and it has been documented on the local news and quick google search will show how they treat employees. You need to call the Transport Workers Union 555 in Dallas and speak to Chuck Cerf. He is the president and needs to know how they are mistreating employees. Losing a badge in the bin is a average day in baggage handling. Usually the next station sends it back in true union brother/sister fashion. To be punished for it is unheard of. Kherker and Willams in Houston or Frasier, Frasier and Hickman in Tulsa helps the TWU members at sea and might be interested in a wrongful termination lawsuit. Next, call OSHA on any violations you witnessed there. SWA is no longer the luv airline but instead the hAAte airline, even surpassing American. The new management has killed what Herb Kelleher built. Tell your son to apply at AA in DFW or Tulsa because they are hiring like gangbusters. Your district reps are pretty powerless since he was on probation, so the best bet is nail them at the Federal level. Many people have left swa to go to AA and that should tell you how bad things are there. As a longtime swa employee, I was glad to see my kid go to AA instead of corrupt Southwest. This is NO LONGER THE HOUSE THAT HERB BUILT!!
    Write Gary Kelly the president and explain -wont do any good but at least your message will be heard- and write to Colleen Barrett and tell her of your son’s treatment. The shareholders meeting is a good way to voice your opinion so buy one share of stock and go to Dallas on AA and then let them have it in front of the shareholders. Longtime employees are disgusted at the way Swa has chose to do business. The racism scandal and treatment against black employees in STL is documented so call the NAACP and the Local city leaders.

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