Airline Merger Wars

The battle for the soul of an airline

(Aircraft Tail: Aero Icarus; Aircraft Nose: Eric Salard; Tape Gun: plus69/shutterstock)
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“I was on the 1965 negotiating committee that merged the two seniority lists,” says former Capital pilot Clyde Luther. “[United] worked to protect their people and keep all the Capital people off the [jet-powered] DC-8.” During a two-year freeze, he says, Capital pilots could only fly United’s propeller-driven DC-6s and -7s. As the airline’s two seniority lists began to merge, Capital pilots began to fly United’s jets too, including the DC-8 and 737.

“They were seat-of-the-pants pilots,” says Bud Cochran, a 30-year veteran of United who had amassed nearly 18,000 hours in the Boeing 737 by the time he retired in 1998. In 1968, when Cochran was hired, he shared the cockpit with former Capital pilots, who he describes as “good to excellent pilots who flew the airplane first and worried about the procedures second.”

Cochran recalls the differences when departing from airports where noise abatement was mandated. The Capital pilots would take off and then “zoom climb” to altitude.  “They were not flying the procedure, but in my opinion, it was as good or better. They were just different guys in how they handled the airplane. If you were a copilot and didn’t do what they wanted, they wouldn’t have much to do with you…. I really felt they handled the airplane better than the United pilots did.”

Occasionally an airline merger can bring out the best practices from each player. At Southwest Airlines’ Dallas headquarters, where you’ll see employees playing full-court basketball in the parking lot, another merger (or “integration,” as Southwest senior executives prefer to call it) is under way. AirTran Airways is still technically operated as a separate carrier, although the two have shared a single Federal Aviation Administration operating certificate since March 2012. Up until the end of 2014, when Southwest’s branding finally subsumed the AirTran name and livery, booking a Southwest flight would get you either airline, or, if your trip required a connection, perhaps a combination of the two. 

Wearing a snappy sport coat, Greg Christopher is overdressed by Southwest standards. One of six network directors at Southwest headquarters, where he is lit by the dim glow of  dozens of monitors, he oversees operations for both Southwest and AirTran. In the center, the ruling ethos is that the two airlines are operating as one. The flight attendants from each airline may service the cabin differently, but differences can’t extend into the decisions made in the cockpit or by flight operations. “We don’t want Southwest pulling out of Baltimore because of snow showers while we still have AirTran operating,” says Christopher.

A particular difficulty is managing both AirTran’s hybrid point-to-point and hub-and-spoke model and Southwest’s point-to-point route map, which it has held on to tenaciously since the 1970s. “Southwest is much more intense,” he says; the airline operates about 3,400 flights a day with more than 600 aircraft, while AirTran has about 700 flights and 130 aircraft. Ultimately, the two models and the vastly different scale of operations are just too difficult to integrate, so the company will permanently keep operations separate.

That Christopher is in charge of operations is notable, because he’s an AirTran convert, not a Southwest veteran. “Southwest came in strong and assured us that we’d be treated well and that we’d have jobs,” he says. “Their people culture really shined through.” Only two AirTran dispatchers, Christopher says, chose to retire rather than convert to Southwest.     

In another corner of the building, Sonya Lacore, Southwest’s senior director of inflight customer service, sits in an over-wing row of the crew trainer, a Boeing 737 fuselage section. The trainer is part of the “Airport Experience,” a facility that includes check-in kiosks and gate counters and is a classroom for all new Southwest hires. Wearing a leopard-print dress, Lacore has a soft, calming delivery. Just the person you’d want to oversee your cabin fire, severe turbulence, or water evacuation, all of which are simulated here via hydraulic rams, smoke generators, and inflated rafts outside the cabin windows. A new class enters, and soon a potential flight attendant is struggling to close a several-hundred-pound galley door with the reassuring “ka-chunk” familiar to any frequent flier. New candidates are eliminated if they can’t master the FAA requirements; for instance, some are sent home if they can’t deliver emergency instructions in the simulator with enough authority to take command of the cabin.

There are two versions of the flight attendant classes now: one for novice attendants to learn procedure, and one for AirTran Airlines veterans to learn how to be an ambassador of the Southwest brand. Once she’s strapped in, the average flier may not notice a big difference in how she’s treated, but at the corporate level, cabin crew procedures are a serious business: In a business with razor-thin margins, superior customer service can help an airline compete for passengers and is therefore part of the relentless drive for profitability.

Lacore has great respect for AirTran, which she views as very well run; it has an almost military ethic, mirrored in the appearance of its flight attendants (female flight attendants were required to have their hair tightly bound up). Some AirTran crews had a difficult time accepting that flight attendants could wear shorts and polo shirts, while others liked the new freedom. Regardless, Lacore’s mission is to take the best of AirTran and fold it into the indelible Southwest persona.

“No disrespect to the past decisions of their leaders, but it just wasn’t who they were,” Lacore says. “Our customers have come to know us, and they’re looking for some fun, some laughter and some jokes and some songs. There were so many AirTran flight attendants that had that in them, but some of it had been suppressed. And so they were able to finally express themselves, which I thought was so cool to see them get to do that. They almost didn’t trust us at first: ‘I can really sing and I won’t get in trouble?’ ”

Another step was getting AirTran crews to embrace Southwest’s egalitarian ethic, exemplified by such features as open seating on its flights. And, Lacore says, “they use the cart on their aircraft, and we use the tray.” Lacore believes the tray prevents the usual queue of lavatory-bound passengers from being blocked by the beverage cart, and allows flight attendants to be mobile, smiling, and focused on other passenger needs as they ply the aisle.

“Our short hauls were foreign to them too, so they weren’t used to getting up as soon as our flight attendants do. At 10,000 feet,” Lacore snaps her fingers, “they’re up.” Early in its history, most Southwest flights landed in destinations scarcely an hour away, but as the carrier grew, so did its routes. Lacore says their flight attendants are absorbing information from AirTran’s crews about working longer flights, such as handling onboard customs paperwork as Southwest prepares to fly to Mexico—its first international routes.

While Southwest continues to integrate the best of both worlds with AirTran, Doug Parker, over at American, says he’ll be adding a TWA-painted aircraft to the American fleet and will retain at least one US Airways-liveried jet as a morale booster for employees who wore that logo on their uniforms. But the culture clashes will continue as long as one airline is gobbled up by another, likely to go unnoticed by the ever-increasing number of passengers, dozing in coach and forever hungry for a cheap seat.  

About John Sotham
John Sotham

A former associate editor of Air & Space, John Sotham is a hopelessly nearsighted frequent flyer, with thousands of hours logged in exit rows worldwide. He is a retired U.S. Air Force Reserve colonel and a former crew chief on the F-4D Phantom II and A-10A “Warthog.” He started collecting aviation books when he was eight years old. Any opinions expressed are solely the author’s.

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