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Southwest Airlines' incoming CEO 'had no idea' he was in line for the job

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·4 min read
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Incoming Southwest Airlines (LUV) CEO Robert Jordan likes to tell people he is 80% excited about the job he starts early next year but jokes that he is also 20% terrified.

"Well it's a big job and it's not pressure that overwhelms you. What came over me instantly was an incredible desire to do good for our employees," Jordan told Yahoo Finance Live.

Southwest employs 54,000 people and transported 130 million passengers in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic forced every airline to drastically cut back flights and staff. Jordan recalled watching Southwest's revenue fall 97%, "which is breathtaking by the way," in just a few weeks, as the country and the rest of the world locked down to combat the coronavirus.

"Right now we're seeing leisure demand, I would say, back in the 2019 area. It's strengthening day-by-day at this point. Our business demand is still pulled back," Jordan said.

Southwest reported Q3 earnings last month stating, "We are encouraged with renewed momentum in leisure and business traffic, revenues, and bookings — especially over the holidays. Except for higher fuel prices, fourth quarter 2021's overall results are trending better than third quarter 2021."

Airline analysts, like Cowen Managing Director Helane Becker, respect Jordan. "Bob has a long history at Southwest Airlines and is well-versed in the way the company runs and the thinking of the Board," she told Yahoo Finance.

Jordan joined Southwest in 1988 and has held various leadership positions which include his roles as director of revenue accounting, vice president procurement, vice president technology, chief commercial officer and president of AirTran Airways, the low cost competitor Southwest bought in 2011 and fully merged into Southwest's operations under Jordan's leadership, in 2015.

But Jordan said becoming CEO was never part of his personal career plan at Southwest. "It's a job that I had no idea I would ever be in line for. And no idea up until it was announced, literally, that I would be in line for," he said.

'A lot of hope riding on Bob'

Jordan will be piloting Southwest as CEO at a time when the airline must navigate turbulence with some of its employees.

"Our pilots are tired and frustrated because our operation is running on empty due to a lack of support from the company," the Southwest Airlines Pilot Association (SWAPA) stated in early October as staffing shortages, bad weather and FAA-ordered delays forced Southwest to cancel more than 2,000 flights.

"I think there’s a lot of hope riding on Bob for us and myself I share that hope." Captain Casey Murray, SWAPA president, told Yahoo Finance. He's known Jordan for more than a decade and said Jordan "is much more of a people person and understands that this airline specifically was built on its people."

But Murray said Southwest's growth over the last decade, focus on its operations while surviving the great recession and COVID-19 pandemic put stress on Southwest's employees. "I think our people have kind of been lost and I do believe that Bob recognizes that and I do believe that he has a desire to correct it," Murray said.

"We have wonderful people," said Jordan, reiterating his commitment to uphold the airline's traditionally strong employee relations. "They love Southwest Airlines. They have hopes and desires to buy houses and send kids to college and they depend on Southwest Airlines for that livelihood and you just have an overwhelming desire for goodness for all of our people."

"From what I’ve heard, he has a good relationship with labor and if true, that should help with the transition," Becker said. She added, "I think they need to focus on operations and how to recover from irregular operations without a repeat of what happened earlier in October," when staff shortages and FAA traffic delays forced the airline to cancel thousands of flights."

Jordan acknowledges the recent setbacks. It's in line with the way colleagues and peers describe him as a person who embodies Southwest's serve others culture. "To our employees and our customers, we've had a rough summer operationally and we had a rough event on October the 8 and 9 and 10 and I just want to apologize for that," he said.

Looking ahead to Southwest's future, Jordan pledged, "We will and are doing better and we will serve you and we will provide the reliability that you expect and you deserve from Southwest Airlines. You can depend on us."

Adam Shapiro is co-anchor of Yahoo Finance Live. Follow him on Twitter @Ajshaps

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