Southwest Airlines pilots to disastrous bosses: It's your education, stupid

When too many executives have the same education and think alike, it may be a recipe for disaster. Or, at least, for a systemic catastrophe.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer
Southwest Airlines plane in the air

Too many accountants?

Daniel Slim/Getty

Have you ever wondered why things always seem to stay the same?

Why does Silicon Valley always seem to have the same way of doing things? Disruption by bro is the only way, right?

Why do politicians always seem to think and do the way they've always done? You know, line their own pockets, believe their own lies, and care little for the populace.

On this very subject, Southwest Airlines pilots would like to have a word. Well, quite a few words, actually.

We write to inform you that it's your fault

While you were celebrating the coming of a New Year -- or perhaps while you were still stuck at an airport waiting for a Southwest Airlines plane to take you home -- the airline's pilots were writing a scorching, scorning letter to their management.

This wasn't a private letter. They wanted every single customer to know what they felt were the real reasons for Southwest's startling meltdown over the Christmas period.

Penned by the pilot's union's second vice president, Captain Tom Nekouei, the letter specifically derided management and, in particular, former CEO and current chairman Gary Kelly.

The pilots sneered that Kelly had authorized stock buybacks instead of investing in vital aspects of the operation -- technology, for example.

"Subject matter experts, including our analysts at SWAPA [the pilots' union], pleaded with management to make the investments into our tech infrastructure before we suffered an existential meltdown," said Nekouei.

Please don't worry, Nekouei had only just started to rev his engines. He described Kelly as "the airline darling of Wall Street who Gordon Gekko'd his own company from within through greed, ambition, and neglect for the operation itself."

There's no accounting for incompetence

But wait, here's where the pilots see the fundamental problem, and it may be a lesson for so many companies who hire according to very narrow parameters.

Said Nekouei: "With the above changes instituted by Gary Kelly came the proliferation of single-points-of-failure within our Company's individual stovepipes, and at the top of that operational stovepipe as Chief Operations Officer, Gary Kelly installed another accountant and friend, Mike Van de Ven. And just like that, we were suddenly an operational flying and customer service company with the top three positions occupied by three holders of bachelor's degrees in accounting from the University of Texas."

Well, isn't that grabbing the bull by the Longhorns?

Also: Southwest has a new idea for customers

How many times, over the last few years, have you heard companies being described as "run by accountants"? How many times have you worked for such companies? And how many times have you considered those to be extremely well-run companies?

Oh, accountants might know how to satisfy Wall Street every three months, but do they really know how to run a business with a longer-term perspective?

I only ask because the pilots don't think so. Nekouei describes this accountant-centric mindset as "a recipe for operational ignorance and collective groupthink. A monetization of the once vaunted Southwest culture and instead turning it into a headquarters-centric cult. A good old boys and girls network indeed."

What happens to a company that, in Nekouei's words, institutes "an obsessive focus on cost-control to increase shareholder return"?

Does it become a happier place to work? Does it become a place that serves customers better? Or does it become a place where the few earn untold millions while the remainder have to deal with the consequences?

A post-pandemic reset? Perhaps not

Haven't we learned anything during the pandemic about what drives a company forward, beyond the numbers and data?

For its part, Southwest responded to the pilots' views with down-home equanimity. An airline spokesperson told NBC News that the airline "has a more than 51-year history of allowing -- and encouraging -- its employees to express their opinions in a respectful manner."

Here, though, is a fundamental issue. The pilots appear not to have any respect for the accountants who are running the show. In fact, they think they're running the airline into the ground.

"I am fearful for the future of our company as the long knives come out from government regulators, lawmakers, the flying public, media, and lawyers and get pointed directly at the heart of our future careers," said Nekouei. "This meltdown was easily avoidable. It was predictable and it was predicted."

Meanwhile, customers sit there wondering whether to fly Southwest again.

Meanwhile, Southwest thinks it can placate them with (hopefully) a refund and 25,000 free frequent flyer points. (Hey, we know we treated you badly, so try us again!)

Could it be that several accountants had to approve that? 

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