Of all the industries I'm glad I don't work in, even though I think I could theoretically enjoy it, the airline industry is near the top of the list.

Maybe you feel the same way. It's ironic, because I write often about the airlines. I've even compiled a free e-book, Flying Business Class (download here), that explains why business leaders in every industry should study how the airlines face their big challenges.

In short, the airlines provide a nonstop parade of business school case studies -- a commodity industry in which the big, publicly traded players make almost all their decisions under tough scrutiny, forced to explain each choice in front of an audience of stakeholders, analysts, and journalists.

But at the same time, it's a very difficult business. Right now, it's especially difficult. 

Our exhibit of the month in support of that idea has been Southwest Airlines: specifically, the tension at Southwest between the company's efforts to get as much revenue as possible after the Covid slowdown, against the more difficult workload that its pilots and flight attendants have faced as a result.

About two weeks ago, the union representing Southwest Airlines flight attendants  wrote an open letter to Southwest CEO Gary Kelly saying they have "given all we have left to give," and that they felt, "weary, exhausted, frustrated, and forgotten" as a result of increased demands. 

Shortly afterward, the union representing Southwest Airlines pilots weighed in, expressing the same kinds of concerns and asking the company to tackle fatigue and scheduling issues, and even weighing picketing Southwest at U.S. airports to try to garner public support.

Now, perhaps your employees aren't writing open letters and releasing them to the media. Maybe you're not dealing with the same kind of unionized workforce that could consider protests like this. 

But there are a heck of a lot of businesses in other industries facing similar tensions.

What do you do right now if you're looking at the possibility of increased revenue against an uncertain future due to both Covid and other variables, but you're also facing employee recruitment and retention issues?

In Southwest's case, the airline did two things.

  • First, its chief operating officer, Mike Van de Ven, issued a public apology to its employees, acknowledging that increased demand "[took] a toll on our operation and put a significant strain on all of you, and for that, I am sincerely sorry," 
  • Second, last week, the airline announced a bigger change: It will cut its schedule during the crucial final months of the year, in order to accommodate what its pilots and flight attendants have been saying.

I'll let you judge the relative scope of the cuts. Southwest says it will reduce its schedule between September 7 and October 6 by about 27 flights per day, and between October 7 and November 5 by 162 per day.  

Additional cuts through the holiday season are coming, but are yet to be announced. Put that against an average of about 3,300 to 3,400 flights per day in September and October. 

Was it enough to get Southwest employees on board and make their pilots and flight attendants a lot happier? Based on admittedly incomplete information, it looks like the answer is probably yes.

"We are pleased that Southwest has finally begun to hear the message that [the union] has been saying for months now -- the current holiday schedule is not sustainable," said Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, according to CNN

As for the flight attendants, that union's president told CNN that part of the strain came from the fact that about 1,000 flight attendants took Southwest up on early retirement offers during the early days of the pandemic.

So it should also help that, separate from the schedule announcement (and apparently in the works for weeks before the union's complaints), Southwest also recently said that it's launching a recruitment program that rewards employees who refer new applicants for jobs at Southwest.

Look, there are a heck of a lot of businesses right now dealing with burned-out employees and coming up with their own solutions.

Earlier this year, the dating app Bumble gave most workers an extra week off to recover from Covid-related burnout. And we've seen lots of retail and service companies, including local restaurants, make news by closing for a few days here and there because they simply don't have enough employees.

If you're facing a similar situation, I think there are a few takeaways from Southwest's experience:

  • First, pay attention to your workers' morale, with a special eye attuned to signs of burnout.
  • Second, while you might not be confronted with gestures as dramatic as Southwest faced -- open letters and the like -- be ready to listen and to let your employees know that you are listening, even if you don't have an immediate solution available.
  • Third, focus on recruiting. This is a full-time job in most businesses, but it's even more apt today.
  • Fourth, bring your workers in on the problem and ask them to be part of the solution. Copy a page from Southwest's book, for example, by perhaps offering incentives and referral bonuses to employees who recruit other new employees.
  • Fifth, be prepared to forgo short-term opportunities in favor of not overtaxing your workers and creating a more stable workforce in the longer term.

Finally, give yourself a break. The kind of dilemma Southwest is facing, and that many other companies are facing too, is one that doesn't come up all that often in business. If you're not sure exactly how to handle this, well, at least you should know you're not alone.

Oh, and stay tuned to whatever challenges the airlines face next. Even if you don't want to work in the industry, there's always another lesson to be learned. 

(Don't forget the free e-book: Flying Business Class.)