Helicopters Magazine

Features Procedures Safety & Training
A Professional Attitude

Herbert Keleher, founder and retired CEO of the very successful Southwest Airlines, once attributed profitability to a simple doctrine: “I treat my employees like customers.”


October 12, 2012
By Michael Bellamy

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Herbert Keleher, founder and retired CEO of the very successful Southwest Airlines, once attributed profitability to a simple doctrine: “I treat my employees like customers.” In doing so, Keleher maintained, he induced his employees to work harder, be more cost conscious, and with their high degree of morale, influence customers to show the same loyalty.

Being a line pilot, I seldom deal directly with the president or CEO, especially when working for a large corporation, so from my perspective, Keleher’s influence must have been substantial – instilling that doctrine to every manager down the line.

Aviation, and especially the helicopter industry, is very cliquey. The word-of-mouth network established over the years has proven to be constructive, however, as helicopter professionals share advice on safety, piloting techniques, procedures and service difficulties. Over the years, pilots and engineers – especially with the help of the Internet – have developed a substantial knowledge of most operators’ practices. Inevitably, the lines of communication also contain what can only be construed as gossip – examples of the lack of public rectitude of their authors.

It’s not uncommon now for pilots and engineers seeking employment to go online looking for first-hand accounts of what a prospective company is like to work for. Soliciting advice in this manner is perhaps prudent in gathering as much information as possible, but bear in mind that the Internet is often misleading; knowledge of the source is vital.

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Many of us have had disagreements with employers over issues such as customer relations, payroll, or a mix-up in crew rotation. Occasionally this escalates to a situation where some may look online for moral support. But pilots or engineers who take this experience online are not only showing a lack of judgment but also demonstrating how ephemeral their loyalty is to the company name listed on their paycheque.

Interdepartmental conflicts, customer relationships, maintenance practices and even pay scales are often discussed in public realms. Social media sites such as Facebook, together with various chat lines, can play host to some contributors’ vindictive tirades for the entire world to see. And yes, chatlines, Facebook, Twitter and ever-increasing social media sites catering to common interests are indeed entertaining. There is a wealth of information to be found there – for example, adventures of those overseas or venturing into new territory are enjoyable narrations of just how diverse our industry has become.

But what devalues these contributions are those who hide behind the anonymity of a user name and debase companies, with or without justification, or deride the competency of others in the industry. I have witnessed chat rooms that have banned such contributors and I applaud their efforts. Our industry should be defined as one that ascribes to professionalism and dignity, not innuendos and shallow gossip.

I believe it’s prudent for companies to remind supervisory staff of Keleher’s doctrine: ‘Treat your employees like customers.” Managers who identify and defuse altercations before they can escalate, not only maintain constructive dialogue, but also assure employees that their concerns are taken seriously.

I have witnessed companies who brag to potential customers about the competency and experience levels of their employees and then at the first sign of discord side with the customer. That only demonstrates that they really didn’t believe in what they previously told their customers.

In this case, the managers’ lack of professional diplomacy may satisfy the customer, but leave the employee with the knowledge that his or her supervisor will not support them. Of course there are times when the customers’ concerns are valid; in this situation, management has the task of maintaining the loyalty of both parties.

Helicopter companies allocate substantial funding in marketing their services and possible employee discord – for example, poor customer relations – should never be overlooked. To wit, who doesn’t remember an airline employee who offers little sympathy when your luggage goes missing? Doesn’t this simply nullify the marketing strategy of that airline?

 Keleher’s doctrine sounds like an elementary ideology but as valuable as it is to a company’s success, it’s not as simple as it sounds.


A native of Spruce Grove, Alta., Michael Bellamy has been flying fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft in a variety of capacities since 1971, and is an accomplished author of several books, including Crosswinds.


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