Bob Campbell was having just another routine day at Orlando International Airport, where he is a customer service agent for Southwest Airlines. There was a weather-related delay, so he turned to “gate games” to entertain the passengers.
Sometimes he holds paper-airline competitions. Other days he sends passengers on scavenger hunts through the terminal. But he landed on an old favorite: an open call to see whose driver’s license photo was the worst.
That particular day, Aug. 22, a passenger happened to pull out her phone and capture the moment. The woman, Kristen Dundas, wrote in a tweet that she had been getting “HEATED” during a nearly 2½-hour delay — until the games started. National news outlets jumped on the story, and Campbell started getting calls from friends.
“I still can’t believe it’s become so famous; I was just doing what I’ve always done,” Campbell says.
He was also doing what Southwest has always done: maximizing humor, creativity and individuality to stand out as a different kind of airline. The carrier is now a major player in aviation, with more than 59,000 employees and more than 130 million passengers a year, but that fun-fostering culture goes back decades to the company’s founding as a scrappy underdog in the industry.
“When we started flying in 1971, we were known for our low fares, which also meant no frills,” spokesman Derek Hubbard said in an email. “That led to the saying that our flight attendants were our in-flight entertainment, and they were (and still are!) great about finding unique ways to recognize customers and creating memorable experiences by using the resources available on the aircraft.”
That might include making crowns out of food packets or celebratory cakes from toilet paper rolls — both of which this reporter experienced a few years ago during a flight to a celebratory occasion. It’s worth noting that in the early years, Southwest flight attendants were also known for their uniforms of hot pants and high boots, which wouldn’t fly today.
Airline expert Seth Kaplan says Southwest is, by all accounts, a success story — and that its culture has helped it get there. He said that last year, the carrier had the highest operating profit margin globally of any huge airline, making it “among the most profitable airlines in the world.”
“They’re a really successful airline in terms of somebody who’s been making a lot of money for a lot of years and generally been doing it with rather happy employees and rather happy customers,” he says. “It’s hard to think of another airline that’s done that so consistently.”
The company culture isn’t the only reason Southwest is doing so well today — Kaplan said factors such as its domestic network play a huge role.
“But I do know that Southwest wouldn’t want to rerun history and see how things would have worked out without the culture that it has had all of these years,” he says.
The airline’s late co-founder Herb Kelleher was known, as his obituary in January noted, for dressing as Elvis Presley, stepping in to handle bags over the busy Thanksgiving travel stretch and arm-wrestling another company’s executive over a legal tussle. He was serious about his business, but also about pranks. He “loved people and loved to have fun,” says Kevin Freiberg, a management consultant and co-author of the book “NUTS! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success” with his wife, Jackie Freiberg.
“When you’ve got a dominant force and a person who really becomes the culture czar and has fun, it just gives people around you the freedom to have fun as well,” Freiberg says. “Herb had such a high view of humanity and people that he didn’t want automatons. It was like, ‘Come be yourself and express your creativity, express your individuality.’”
Kelleher told Fortune magazine in 1994 that the company hired for attitude, not education or expertise.
“What we are looking for, first and foremost, is a sense of humor,” he said.
Julie Weber, a Southwest vice president and “chief people officer,” said in an email that the company still hires for attitude, looking specifically for a “warrior spirit, servant’s heart and fun-LUVing attitude.” (The company’s stock symbol is LUV. Its logo includes a heart, and co-workers are known as co-hearts.)
And that hiring is a massive undertaking: For 6,000 external positions, the company, headquartered in Dallas, will field an average of about 300,000 applications, says Greg Muccio, director of talent acquisition. “We hire super, super tough,” he says.
Muccio tells his staff that when they’re interviewing someone, they should think about the most important person in their life: “If you wouldn’t want that person taking care of them, then they wouldn’t be good enough to take care of our customers, either.”
When Sonya Lacore, vice president of in-flight operations, meets with new flight attendants, she says they always want to know about her own experiences. She started as a flight attendant in 2001 before moving into a leadership position.
“They want to know, ‘What’s the funniest thing you ever did? Were you a singer or were you a joke teller?'" she says. “I can tell what they’re trying to do is grab on to what their gift is.”
Leaders always tell them: Sing if you’re a singer. Please do not sing if you’re not. As it turns out, Lacore was, and her lyrics have been passed down over generations.
“Our customers don’t want bad singing,” Lacore says. “If you’re a joke teller, that’s great. If your gift is just to get on your knees to talk to a small child, that’s your gift. Use whatever your gift is, because then it will be authentic.”
Employees have been finding fame for years: There was “Hilarious Rapping Flight Attendant” David Holmes, who rose to attention in 2009 and was tapped that year to riff on accounting practices with the “GAAP rap” at an annual shareholder meeting. A YouTube video of “Hilarious Southwest Flight Attendant” Marty Cobb’s fast-and-funny safety announcement has racked up more than 25 million views and landed her an appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” in 2014.
A search on YouTube shows some competition for “funniest” flight attendant, with strong showings from a largely deadpan comedic duo and a safety announcement densely packed with one-liners. “Funny Guy of Southwest Airlines” also deserves a mention thanks to his broad physical comedy that veers into Magic Mike audition territory.
The “Overheard on Southwest” Tumblr is dedicated to memorable “funnies,” and passengers frequently tweet in real time about their own experiences — usually positively, but occasionally out of offense at some joking comment.
“When you search for flight attendant announcements, most of the funny ones tend to be Southwest,” says Gary Leff, author of the travel blog View From the Wing and a loyalty marketing consultant. A frequent Southwest flier, Leff captured one such moment in August, when a gate agent sang “Thank You for Flying Southwest” to the “Golden Girls” theme song as passengers got off the plane in Phoenix.
Some passengers find themselves mystified at the antics they encounter. One woman was baffled when she spotted a flight attendant perched in an overhead compartment as people boarded the plane. It was an old gag, Lacore, the VP, said, one she pulled off herself in the early 2000s.
Mostly, experts believe the friendly onboard vibe helps set the airline apart ― along with customer-friendly practices such as no fees to check bags or change a flight.
“People feel a little bit more human when they’re being related to as people, versus an assembly line, where people feel sometimes like self-lugging cargo,” Leff says. “It’s not a conscious thought that fun flight attendants are why I fly Southwest, but it contributes to the general zeitgeist that you’re sort of not the enemy. Which is especially helpful for an airline that is seen as no-frills.”
Southwest doesn’t require employees to get the okay for jokes, routines, songs or games — onboard announcements just have to include all the information required by federal aviation regulations.
“There’s no approval process,” Lacore says. “We put a lot of trust and confidence in them.”
If there has ever been a complaint from a customer that the material is too edgy, for example, the flight attendant might be urged to consider the “greater good” for the flight. “There have been minimal times that this happened,” Lacore says. “For the most part, people use really good judgment and common sense.”
And flight attendants know to read the room — or plane — during boarding to get a sense of what the crowd might be ready for.
“Business travel at 6 in the morning — probably not a good time to sing a song. Just serve coffee and be quiet,” Lacore says.
When there are tense moments in the airline industry — a plane crash, the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max flights or a death — Southwest doesn’t explicitly coach its employees to mute their antics. Although Southwest wouldn’t comment on it directly, a woman died and several passengers were injured in April 2018 when an engine exploded during a flight and forced an emergency landing. The airline cut back on its commercials and ads in the immediate aftermath of the incident, which was its first passenger fatality.
In difficult times, the airline will “just occasionally remind them” to be “very, very intuitive and sensitive” to the fact that people may have those issues on their mind.
Whenever he sees some new gesture get attention, Muccio says, it makes him proud of not only the employee but the team who hired the person.
“A lot of times, if I’m able to capture these things, I will send it to my team with just the expression, ‘Rinse and repeat. Do it again,’” he says.
Lacore says her first two thoughts when something has gone viral are always pride and a prayer that everything the flight attendant did was within regulatory compliance.
For Bob Campbell, who has been at Southwest for 15 years, the only moments that mattered were the ones with customers. After his gate games in Orlando made the news, his mother said: “Think about all the years you’ve been doing this fun stuff and finally it’s getting noticed.”
He keeps a bag with prizes such as a pencil case, a dog dish and playing cards for the winners that he brings “religiously” whenever he goes to work the gate.
“When I’m at a gate with a bad flight situation, due to weather, mostly, then I like to pretend that that’s my stage and I’m the game-show and talk-show host, and we’re going to have a little fun,” he says. He also makes a point of saying that passengers won’t have the same experiences on other airlines “because we have a fun-loving attitude, and it’s part of our core values.”
“My goal is to make our passengers as happy as possible during whatever situation may arise,” he says. And, he hopes, they’ll remember the experience “and fly Southwest again.”