Southwest Airlines' Crazy Recipe
For Business and Personal Success

Kevin & Jackie Freiberg

Minute By Minute


Jim Wimberly, vice president of ground operations, sent us to one of the busiest airports in the Southwest system where ground crews face just about every hurdle there is in turning an airplane on time. With its well-known air-traffic problems, passenger and cargo delays from international flights, limited number of gates and overcrowded facilities, Los Angeles International (LAX) offers a unique challenge to the people in ground operations. Station Manager Stan Cielak put us in the care of Va’a Mapu (“Boat” as he is affectionately called by his friends), and we ventured out to the tarmac to see how a fifteen-minute turn works.

2:45 p.m.

Like a finely honed pit crew waiting for that Indy car to arrive, Rudy Guidi, Calvin Williams, Kirkland Howling and Ricardo PĂ©rez prepare to spring into action. Rudy and Calvin go over the bin sheet, which tells the team how much baggage, freight and mail is on the aircraft, while the rest of the team makes sure the equipment is in position to turn the plane. The ground crew is joined by First Officer Ken Brown, who is there to do a preflight check on the aircraft.

2:46 p.m.

The aircraft is in sight, and Ricardo jumps up on the back of the tug to guide the plane into the jetway. Rudy and Calvin each start up a belt loader and begin to move toward the plane as it approaches the gate.

2:47 p.m.

The aircraft comes to a complete stop at the gate. The jetway is already moving toward the door of the aircraft. The baggage bins of the Boeing 737 fly open. A fueler pulls up to the aircraft while crew members off-load bags.

2:48 p.m.

Ken pauses for a moment from his preflight check to help Kirkland connect the pushback to the nose gear of the airplane. Provisioning crew members race through the rear door of the aircraft to stock ice, drinks and snacks and to empty trash. Passengers begin to deplane.

2:49 p.m.

The freight coordinator pulls up in his tug to ensure freight labeled NFG (Next Flight Guaranteed) makes the next flight.

2:50 p.m.

First officer completes his preflight check. Flight attendants move through the cabin of the aircraft to reposition seat belts and pick up trash.

2:51 p.m.

All bags are off-loaded. Ramp agents begin loading bags for new passengers. Provisioning is complete. Current flight crew (pilots and flight attendants) is relieved by new flight crew. Operations agent makes initial announcement calling for preboarders. Several adults with children and a person on crutches make their way to the plane. Fueler is pulling the hose out of the wing of the aircraft.

2:52 p.m.

Operations agent begins boarding customers in groups of thirty. Bags are loaded and fueling is complete. Most of the ground crew move to another gate to prepare for the arrival of the next aircraft.

3:00 p.m.

Passenger boarding is complete; operations agent gives weight and balance sheet to pilot. Pilots trim the aircraft according to the load. Ramp agent connects the communication gear to talk to the pilots in the cockpit from the tarmac.

3:01 p.m.

The jetway pulls back and the door of the aircraft closes. Pushback maneuvers the plane onto the tarmac and turns the plane toward the runway. Ramp agent unhooks the pushback from the aircraft and the plane taxies toward the runway.

Here is what this ground crew of four accomplished in fifteen minutes: There was a complete change of flight crew; 137 customers came off the plane and another 137 boarded; the ramp agents unloaded 97 bags, 1,000 pounds of mail and 25 pieces of freight weighing close to 500 pounds. The ramp agents then loaded another 123 bags and 600 pounds of mail (no freight), while the fueler pumped 4,500 pounds of jet fuel into the wing of the aircraft. It’s an impressive spectacle. People come out of nowhere and the entire area around the plane is abuzz. Then, in a matter of minutes, their jobs complete, the swarm of people disappears and the plane pulls away.

The fifteen- and twenty-minute turns let Southwest use about thirty-five fewer aircraft than an airline with an industry-average turnaround time in the same system. With the cost of a new 737 at $28 million in 1995, it’s not hard to figure out the savings: $1.3 billion in capital expenditures, which is, in turn, passed on to the customer in the form of lower fares and to the shareholder as profits. Southwest’s fifteen-minute turns are not magic; they are a highly coordinated effort from the employees who practice open communication and teamwork everyday.

“Our turnaround time is not the result of tricks,” Kelleher says, “but the result of our dedicated employees, who have the willpower and pride to do whatever it takes.”