Early in the morning, the hotel elevators start buzzing to life and slowly the lobby fills with men and women on a mission. Some are talkative and some are downing cup after cup of the last legal stimulant, trying desperately to convince their minds that it is later than it actually is.
At approximately 8 a.m., the doors open to an enormous banquet hall where dozens of tables are arranged equally spaced from each other in rows. There are chairs on each side of the table, a pitcher of water, and a sign designating the table number. On one side of the room there is a projection screen with a logo and the word “Welcome.” Jackets are lint-rolled one final time, ties are straightened, and one more look in the mirror confirms that all are prepared to put their best foot forward.
People look at their schedules, find where they are supposed to be, and take their places. Suddenly the projection screen changes from “Welcome” to a clock that counts down from 30 minutes.
And they’re off! Each hoping that at the end of their 30 minutes they will walk away with a match… (or at least prospects for a match).
What I have just described could describe any number of speed dating or networking conferences that hope to link the lonely to someone who matches their specifications, but the above is actually the start of an air service development conference.
Several times a year, airlines and airports attend conferences that might resemble speed dating sessions to the casual observer. Representatives from airports around the country (and the world) line up to convince incumbent airlines to add more routes or frequencies and convince new airlines that they are the best choice for their next new destination. The airports can use their 30 minutes however they choose, but most have put together detailed presentations outlining population and income statistics for their region.
Airlines like Southwest are constantly examining cities (both within and outside of the existing route structure), looking for opportunities. Since business and social dynamics for cities and regions are constantly changing, a lot of research is required to ensure that our airplanes are being utilized optimally and we are not missing any opportunities that the competition can capitalize on. Attending conferences like Jumpstart is a way to touch base with current Southwest cities and potential newcomers. Information about population density, income of a region, and business developments is taken back to Southwest headquarters where it is further researched and can become part of the case for adding service to a city.
So why would airports spend the money to travel hundreds of miles to attend meetings that are only 30 minutes long with airlines? Simply put, because a community’s level of air service sets the tone for many other factors that, when they come together, lead to the economic prosperity of a region. Cities with links to dependable, low-fare air service are more likely to have thriving business communities, and that can mean millions of dollars to the regions they support.
This month, representatives from Southwest Airlines’ Network Planning Department will attend the 2012 Marketing & Communications and JumpStart® Air Service Development Program in Sacramento, Calif., and again dozens of airports will try to convince the delegates that they are “the one." So who will come away as a “match” for Southwest Airlines at this month’s conference? We’ll have to wait for upcoming announcements to see.
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The airline industry is tough.
It is tough to compete in, tough to be successful in, and tough to survive in. Case and (in?) point, I am 33 years old, and in the 12 years that I have been in the industry, I have worked for three airlines that have flown into the sunset. Prior to coming to Southwest (where many people still have Employee numbers lower than Wilber and Orville), almost everyone I knew in the industry had at one point or another been on the same career roller coaster. Some of my friends had even been forced to abandon their passion for the industry in search of a more stable means of employment. On September 27, 2010, my search for stability within the industry began for a third time.
When my alarm went off that morning, I reached for my phone to check e-mails and realized this would not be a normal day at the office. It is no understatement to say that receiving an e-mail announcing that your company has been bought has about the same effect as consuming ten caffeine-packed espressos. I was dressed and out the door in record time. When I got to the office, our department (which included revenue management) was assembling in a conference room where our then-Vice President was to brief us on the announcement. I think most of us walked away from that briefing slightly more relieved, but with little solid foundation for the relief because of the vagueness that was required because of the Department of Justice approvals that would be forthcoming.
Some people were excited, some were cautious, and some (including myself) took the news with a healthy amount of both of these emotions. The reputation of Southwest Airlines’ attitude towards its Employees is legendary in not only this industry, but any industry. But on the other hand, the fate of acquired airlines (and their employees) is also legendary across industries. Especially because of our position within the company (Network Planning and Revenue Management), our department was probably one of the ones that was more sensitive to inter-mingling prior to legal close. After all, until May 2, 2011, Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways were still competitors in one of the most brutal industries around, and our respective departments held some of the most closely guarded network growth and pricing secrets.
So began seven months of waiting and hoping. Most of us were sure that Southwest would live up to its reputation and do right among its newly acquired “family,” but even if they did we also realized that our old “family” would be split up. The AirTran headquarters in Orlando where I worked, was a fraction of the size of the Southwest headquarters. There were around 200 people working in departments like SOC, accounting, finance, revenue management, planning, IT, facilities, and the executive offices (the AirTran marketing department was located in Atlanta). Everyone who had been there for more than a few days knew everyone else, if not by name then definitely by sight. Although it was different than the Southwest version, there was definitely a sense of culture and camaraderie that linked us together, and it was a sad feeling to know that some of my friends would not be able to move to Dallas because of family or personal reasons, even if Southwest was as welcoming as we all hoped.
Finally, May 2 came, and I personally felt a sense of relief, but at the same time apprehension. There are two ways to approach an acquisition: with a know-it-all approach, which assumed that this would be a happy day for each party with disregard for the emotional complexity of the situation, and an approach that respects the fact that there will be mixed emotions involved in such a complex situation and that works to welcome each person while they work through those emotions in their own ways. For me personally, I am happy to say that the latter was the case. May 2 is a blur to me as we were finally able to meet and talk to our counterparts. For airline nerds (and I use that term affectionately), this was really a treat. We were finally able to legally pick through the minds at another airline, ask them how they did things, what their strategy was for certain moves that we had seen second-hand, and the biggest question of all … what’s next? After sufficiently geeking-out for most of May 2, we began putting the plan together for not only the airline but also ourselves. Volunteering at Paramore Kidz Zone In early August 2011, I moved to Dallas where I am still working on AirTran schedules as a Network Planner in headquarters. Aside from the other members of my Team who also came to Dallas, I will see a familiar face or two around headquarters, and even more occasionally I will see a green AirTran badge from someone who has been brought to Dallas for training or to get their new badge, and I will say hello and welcome (or “Howdy” or “Yee-Haw!” depending on how Texan I’m feeling that day).
So I stick to my original introduction—this industry is tough; however, I also am optimistic that stability is possible. Since I have arrived at Southwest, I have heard constant discussion about our “cultural advantage” and how our identity gives us an advantage over other airlines. With Customer loyalty and brand recognition ratings to match these claims, there can be no doubt that we have an advantage in this area. However, today more than ever with fuel at all-time highs and an increasing pack of bold competitors, Culture has to mean that we are smarter than the other airlines—smarter in the way we build our strategy, smarter in the way we package our product, smarter in the way we price our product, and smarter in the way we deliver our product. History is littered with great companies that failed to keep up with the times (I can personally vouch for that), and past success does not guaranty future success. In fact, about the only thing it does guarantee is that you will have a target on your back from someone who thinks they can do it better than you. Christian, as Flava Flaaaaav! Yeaaah, boyee! The airline industry is tough. We can be tougher together.
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On March 13, 2006, I joined AirTran Airways as an analyst in the Network Planning Department, or to be more specific, I joined AirTran Airways as the only analyst in a Network Planning Department that consisted of three people. We described our staffing as “lean” (of course, at times it felt more like “anorexic” would be a better description), but for a self-described airline nerd such as myself, working in a lean environment at an airline that was growing by leaps and bounds gave me the opportunity to have hands-on experience with many different facets of the network planning and development process. One of the things I find most interesting to this day is international scheduling.
Back then, as now, thoughts of what new routes will be announced (and especially international destinations) always seem to be at the top of everyone’s mid-afternoon daydream sessions … (I know I’m not the only one who takes one, so stop pretending). As I travel through the system, I hear excitement and anticipation for the new cities that have already been announced and for what is on the horizon, and the excitement is contagious. However, few people have any idea how much work goes into each new route that is announced.
At this very moment, there are literally hundreds of people working to make sure the new international routes announced will depart seamlessly on their planned start date, but the process of finding and selecting a route that compliments the system is a process that can take years. We are all aware that the cost of fuel has risen significantly, and this is putting a strain on profitability, so before any route is announced it is put under intense scrutiny regarding its profitability, sustainability, and ultimately how it will fit into and improve the network. This is no different for international routes, and if anything, more scrutiny is put into their selection because of the added aircraft time investment that is usually required for these flights and additional start-up costs associated with them. How many people currently visit the destination each year? Does travel spike in certain seasons and shrink to nothing in others? Is the destination’s hotel and tourism infrastructure well enough established to handle added capacity and grow over time? Is there a local traffic element that we can connect with … if so, how do you most effectively get your message to them, and how do you sell them tickets (in some countries internet sales are non-existent and travel agencies are still heavily relied upon). All these questions and many, many more are researched, and then a decision is made.
Once a decision is made, the work of preparing for the flight begins. Every single aspect of an international flight must be reviewed and considered as being different than a domestic flight. Everything from the trash, which must be removed and destroyed upon arrival back into the United States, to the question of how to get ice for the return flight out of the international country must be considered. We must file for route authority with both the United States government and the foreign government. Slot requests, permits, and customs landing rights are just a few more of the mountains of paperwork that have to be filed prior to the start date. To get the approval for one flight, a person would have to interact with more lawyers, government officials, and border patrol agencies than most law-abiding people will ever have to in one lifetime. That’s why I have learned to say, “Thank goodness for our lawyers.” Flight Ops has to make sure they have the information needed to fly to the new international destinations, but also to any new alternate airports in the region in case they are needed. There are literally too many tasks to list in this short space, but as I mentioned above, there are hundreds of people working tirelessly on international expansion, and they all have their hands full.
So next time you are in an airport and you hear the boarding call for one of our flights heading internationally, or if you happen to be fortunate enough to be boarding one of these flights, remember the tireless and continuing efforts of the men and women who are making so many new international routes possible this year … then order an adult beverage with an umbrella in it, and try not to think about work again until you get back.
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