Southwest Airlines Just Made a Controversial Change. Its Flight Attendants Are ‘Outraged’

It’s hard to make everybody happy. When you’re running a business, even the smallest decisions can sometimes have big, 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 will resume offering alcoholic beverage service on its flights for the first time since before the pandemic.

On the surface, it seems like a very small step back to normal. Passengers, the airline professionals, will appreciate it

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

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

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

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

But, at the same time, Southwest isn’t out here by itself. All the airlines cut back on drink service and cut off alcohol earlier during the pandemic, but once Southwest’s policy becomes effective February 16, only one of the big four US airlines, American Airlines, will still have its pandemic policy in place.

Now, I can’t say what Southwest should do here. It’s worth noting that the policy was announced just days after Southwest’s new CEO, Bob Jordan, began his tenure.

That said, I did notice one curious thing about Southwest’s announcement, which is that the new drinks policy applies only on flights longer than 176 miles. That’s an oddly specific milestone, right?

It turns out that as of 2019 anyway, Southwest only had eight routes that were under 176 miles. The one just above, at exactly 177 miles? That’s the route from Orlando (MCO) to Fort Lauderdale (FLL).

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

Anyway, it’s fascinating to note how such a minor decision by a single airline can generate so much media coverage, with articles on almost every major outlet. But that’s why I advocate that people running businesses in almost any industry should follow what happens in the airlines.

As I write in my free ebook, Flying Business Class: 10 Rules for Leaders From the US Airlines, they’re all publicly traded commodity companies with an army of analysts, journalists, and stakeholders following every decision, no matter how small. It’s a nonstop parade of business school-style case studies.

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

At the very least, I think this Southwest Airlines experience drives home a reminder: You’ve likely got a lot of different stakeholders. As you make small decisions, think through how each one will react.

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

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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