Fast Talk: Colleen Barrett
Published: May 2009
Colleen Barrett knows how to keep customers coming back for more. As president and chief operating officer of Southwest Airlines—the low-cost, no-frills airline that lets passengers choose their own seats—she has established a track record of putting the customer first. She tries to read every customer letter and sends cards to her employees to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and other life events. Barrett fell in love with the airline industry while working as a legal assistant to the co-founder of Southwest Airlines, and quickly rose through the ranks, reaching her current position in June 2001, thus becoming the only female president of a major U.S. airline. Travel + Leisure caught up with Ms. Barrett at Southwest's home office at Dallas's Love Field.
1. Where are you now?
I am at the office late at night. I am very happy to be here as it is peaceful and quiet, and I am able to have some "think" time.
2. How often do you travel?Is it usually for business or pleasure, and how do you do it?
Several times a month—almost always on business and mostly on Southwest Airlines. I also fly on American for long-haul flights out of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport because of the federal restrictions on interstate flights out of Dallas Love Field (which is Southwest Airlines' home).
3. How did you get your start in the commercial airline business?
I went to work as a secretary to Herb Kelleher [co-founder of Southwest] in 1967. By the time Southwest took its first flight, on June 18, 1971, I was in love with the airline business.
4. What changes has Southwest made to adapt to the new travel climate?
We are trying to make the airport experience better for our customers, while acknowledging the strict federal parameters under which we must work. A few examples: we have expanded our ticketing positions from 600 to almost 800 across our system; added security checkpoints in 31 of our airports; successfully rolled out a new automated boarding-pass procedure, with all check-in locations opening 90 minutes prior to scheduled departure; and hired hundreds of additional employees.
5. What new steps have you taken, if any, to bring back those customers who are reluctant to travel?
We are constantly communicating with our customers about various service enhancements, and educating them as to fare sales and other promotional activities available to them. We have not found that people are as nervous about flying as much as they want their airport experience to be hassle-free. We are working diligently—again within federal mandates—to ensure that we meet those expectations. Our goal is that our customers will have to spend no longer than 15 minutes in any single line.
6. What is the worst experience you have ever had while traveling on an airplane?
Flying into New Mexico during a sleet storm on a commuter flight—not an experience I want to repeat!
7. How does Southwest Airlines stand out from its competitors?
I would need several pages to answer this question properly, but perhaps today's best answer should be that our hardworking people "walk the talk" and do everything possible to ensure that our customers receive an on-time flight.
8. Tell us about your "passenger of size" policy. How did it come about in the first place, why did you repeal it, and then why was it reinstated?
In short, our basic policy allows us to provide comfortable and safe travel in the manner that each of our customers so deeply deserves. This is not a revenue issue; it is a customer-service issue.
9. What piece of travel advice do you most often give both consumers and industry people these days?
Follow the Golden Rule during your travels and 99 percent of the time it will be returned in kind.
10. Where are you off to next?
Interviewed by Melissa Eisberg