Steep Learning Curve for Southwest Airlines as It Flies Overseas
New Destinations Require Changes to Training, Reservation System
Oct. 14, 2014
To promote the start of its new international flights, Southwest Airlines Co. quipped in recent TV advertisements: “Smile. Southwest is getting its passport.”
But for some employees, it hasn’t been a joke.
The airline grew into the nation’s fourth biggest over the past four decades by flying exclusively within the continental U.S. But with dwindling growth opportunities at home, it has started launching flights to the Caribbean and two tourist destinations in Mexico. Coming soon: flights to the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and Mexico City.
The overseas expansion, while banal by the standards of its big rivals, has required huge changes of Dallas-based Southwest. It had to install a reservations system capable of handling foreign bookings and train staff in everything from how to interact with air-traffic controllers speaking heavily accented English to how to use life rafts if a plane needs to ditch at sea. And, surprisingly in a profession where cheap travel is a major perk, many employees needed to get passports, according to the company and two unions.
- “It was a massive project, one of the biggest in my 22 years here,” said Mike Van De Ven, Southwest’s chief operating officer.
So far, international flights are a small part of Southwest’s business. It started by flying to Puerto Rico in the spring of 2013, and in July it launched flights to Aruba, the Bahamas and Jamaica. The following month it added Cancun and Cabo San Lucas in Mexico.
By November, it expects to offer more than 30 daily flights to eight overseas destinations, in addition to nearly 3,600 flights to about 90 U.S. airports. American Airlines Group Inc., the nation’s largest operator flying to the Caribbean and Latin America, serves 85 destinations in 38 countries and territories in the region.
The overseas expansion has required huge changes for Southwest. ENLARGE
The overseas expansion has required huge changes for Southwest. Bloomberg News
Southwest sees a big opportunity. It has identified 50 new places it could reach with its all- Boeing Co. 737 fleet, Mr. Van De Ven said. It plans to add flights to a handful of foreign cities from U.S. cities where it has major operations, then let the network evolve, he added. While Southwest will probably remain a mostly domestic carrier, the international destinations could bring financial benefits by accelerating the growth of its core customer base, according to Moody’s Investors Service.
The expansion is a boon for previously landlocked employees. “I’m an international flight attendant. Finally,” said Noah Rojas-Derr, a 13-year Southwest cabin-crew member who has already flown to Aruba and Montego Bay. “It’s been my dream. I’ve always looked at friends who work for other carriers with a little jealousy because they’ve been able to go on these exotic international trips.”
Still, international flights on the pioneer of budget air travel lack some frills that employees at other airlines enjoy. The only overnight layovers now are in Aruba and San Juan, because Southwest schedules most flights so the plane merely touches down for an hour or so and then leaves again.
In addition, some crew members have been deterred because, unlike competitors, Southwest doesn’t offer higher pay for international trips, although it slightly raised flight-crew per diem rates. That could change, as the pilot and flight-attendant unions are both in contract negotiations with Southwest.
- ‘I’ve always looked at friends who work for other carriers with a little jealousy because they’ve been able to go on these exotic international trips.’
—Noah Rojas-Derr, a 13-year Southwest cabin-crew member
Mr. Van De Ven said Southwest is reluctant to raise costs further, and it believes pilots and attendants are already well paid compared with peers at other carriers who work on similarly sized airplanes.
In preparing for the new flights, Southwest’s 8,000 pilots have had the most changes to digest. They have to report their identities, altitudes and locations to foreign air-traffic controllers—sometimes from several countries—something they don’t do in the U.S. They must also do security walk-arounds of their planes before each flight, whereas in the U.S. they just have to check the plane once as long as they’re with the same one on multiple hops.
Southwest borrowed a program from AirTran under which senior aviators initially ride along in the cockpit to see how the pilots perform on new international routes. Along with training the pilots for the new routes, Southwest loads briefings about each foreign destination onto the iPads pilots use in the cockpit to access manuals, checklists and maps.
The 12,000 flight attendants got cultural-awareness training and performed drills in swimming pools on how to evacuate passengers onto life rafts, which generally aren’t carried on domestic flights. Southwest plans to give extra compensation to attendants who are fluent in the foreign language needed when they fly an international route.
Tabitha Longshore, a 14-year attendant, got her first taste of overseas flying by accident in August. She was reassigned, mid-trip, to the Orange County Airport to cover for a crew that was stranded elsewhere. Her paperwork said her next trip was to “SJD,” an airport code she didn’t recognize. Colleagues told her it was Los Cabos International Airport in Mexico.
“I was kind of nervous,” she recalled. “But the customers were so thrilled to be on that flight.” And the Baja airport shot water cannons over the plane when it landed, as is customary for a first flight. “I can’t wait to do other destinations,” she said.
Some of the changes are prosaic. Southwest stocks planes leaving the U.S. with extra peanuts and pretzels and double ice, half of which is carried in coolers in the belly of the plane until needed for the return trip. It also fills the plane’s water tanks to the brim and ensures that the lavatory tanks are empty before departure. This means it won’t have to rely on vendors at its foreign destinations and can make quicker turnarounds.
But Mr. Rojas-Derr appreciates that local authorities at some of the destinations require that “international trash” from the planes be removed by cleaning companies. “It’s a real treat to have cleaners come into the plane,” he said. “We’ve never had cabin cleaners” because Southwest attendants are required to clean the planes between domestic flights.