Southwest Airlines just made a controversial change. His flight attendants are “outraged”


It’s hard to make everyone happy. When running a business, even the smallest decisions can sometimes have big and complicated ramifications.

This is especially true when you have to balance the interests of many different stakeholders. Some might think they want one thing; others want the opposite.

Case in point: Southwest Airlines, which announced last week that it would resume offering alcoholic beverage service on its flights for the first time since before the pandemic.

On the surface, this appears to be a very small step back from normal. Passengers, according to the airline, will appreciate it

But what about other stakeholders – say, for example, flight attendants at Southwest Airlines?

Not so much, and that’s what makes it so much more controversial. It’s a “dangerous and irresponsible” idea, according to Lyn Montgomery, the union leader representing the Southwest’s 16,000 flight attendants, who added in a statement to the media:

“TWU Local 556 is outraged by the resumption of alcohol sales by Southwest Airlines. We have categorically and unequivocally advised management that the resumption of alcohol sales while the mask mandate is in place has the great potential to increase non-compliance and customer misconduct issues.”

You don’t have to dig too deep to find some of these “compliance issues” – or worse. Examples:

But, at the same time, Southwest is not there alone. All airlines reduced beverage service and cut alcohol earlier during the pandemic, but once Southwest’s policy takes effect Feb. 16, only one of the big four U.S. airlines, American Airlines, will still have its pandemic policy in place.

Now, I can’t say what Southwest should be doing here. It should be noted that the policy was announced just days after new Southwest CEO Bob Jordan took office.

That said, I noticed one curious thing about Southwest’s announcement, which is that the new drink policy only applies to flights over 176 miles. It’s a strangely specific step, isn’t it?

Turns out, in 2019 anyway, Southwest only had eight routes under 176 miles. The one just above, exactly 177 miles away? This is the route from Orlando (MCO) to Fort Lauderdale (FLL).

It sounds like the kind of short flight on which passengers can order a drink or two or three for $6 or $7 each. So you have to assume that stakeholders who are primarily interested in Southwest’s revenue (investors, for example) would appreciate the change announced by the airline.

Either way, it’s fascinating how such a minor decision by a single airline can generate so much media coverage, with stories on almost every major media outlet. But that’s why I’m advocating that people who run businesses in almost every industry follow what’s going on in the airlines.

As I write in my free ebook, Flying business class: 10 rules for US airline executives, they are all publicly traded commodity companies with an army of analysts, journalists and stakeholders following every decision, no matter how small. It’s an unbroken parade of business school-style case studies.

Anyway, I doubt you run an airline (that would be ironic), but you probably run a business. And that means you’re probably faced with a “are we back to normal now?” questions too.

If nothing else, I think this Southwest Airlines experience brings home a reminder: you probably have a lot of different stakeholders. When making small decisions, think about how everyone will react.

You can’t make everyone happy. But at least sometimes you can predict how happy they will be.

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