Known for singing flight attendants and relaxed business culture, Southwest Airlines for decades has marched to a different corporate drummer. This month marks 15 years since Southwest first landed at RDU, bringing changes not only to air service, but also to the way the airport does business.
Recruiting an airline has changed since we first reached out to Southwest in 1994-95. Ours was an old-fashioned courtship that began with a letter from then-Airport Director John Brantley directly to then-CEO Herb Kelleher. We soon began a cordial relationship with staff that continues to this day.
There were a lot of synergies between RDU and Southwest during that time. Our region was growing. Their company was growing. We were both looking to increase our destinations. We were both looking to grow our flights in the same geographic regions. In many ways it seemed like a perfect match.
Our strategy was to approach Southwest by using quirky, fun marketing tactics that they would appreciate. So over the courting years we used the mantra, “We’re young. We’re rich. We’re smart. We fly.” Of course this was supported by a hard-hitting business case with a variety of market data.
In time, our courtship led to a visit by a team of SW executives (and later by Kelleher) who invested several days touring the region and meeting with business executives in Raleigh, Durham and the Research Triangle Park. This type of on-the-ground research is rare today.
When Southwest launched service in June of 1999, its first flights from RDU included Baltimore, Chicago-Midway, Tampa and Orlando. They were housed in the oldest section of the then Terminal A where operations remained until moving to the brand new Terminal 1 in April.
Today, Southwest serves 11 destinations with about 196 flights per week and serves over a million passengers a year. They’re one of our top three carriers in terms of number of passengers. Operating from four of nine gates in the terminal, there is plenty of room for flight additions to Texas, the Midwest and other parts of the Southwest and West Coast. (Hint, hint SW folks!)
Impact on RDU Culture
Southwest also has made a difference on our business culture. When we looked at them they had on shorts and we had on suits. We quickly realized they dressed more casually than us, so we left the ties and suits at home when meeting with them. Soon, our casual Friday dress code as a corporate culture was born.
SW also helped define our focus on customer service by inviting us to their corporate culture academy for business where we learned about their famous customer care tactics. Today, customer service is at the heart of everything we do. Service standards are in everything from traffic control to parking and shops and restaurant operations. It’s all part of our commitment toward delivering world-class service.
So happy anniversary Southwest! We’ve each grown over the years and we look forward to your Sweet 16 party next year. Do you have a great memory of Southwest at RDU? Share with me in the comments below.