Southwest vs. United Airlines’ Corporate Culture


The organizational culture plays an integral part of any successful company as it is an important strategic factor mobilizing all the structural units of the company and each employee individually to achieve the established goals within the framework of the declared mission of the company. The organizational culture determines employees’ satisfaction and the overall strategy of the company. In this connection, the paper aims at the comparison of Southwest Airlines and United Airlines’ organizational cultures including strategy, leadership management, structure, and impact on employees.

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Southwest Airlines is an international company that was initiated in 1971. It is one of the largest pioneer low-cost airlines in the US and in the world by a number of passengers. The company’s fleet consists of 684 Boeing 737 aircraft of various modifications, which make more than 3,400 flights a day (Southwest Airlines, n.d.). In its turn, merging with Continental Airlines in 2010, United Airlines became one of the largest airlines worldwide. Nowadays the company’s fleet includes approximately 700 aircraft (United Airlines, n.d.).

Strategic Focus

United Airlines seeks to follow the modernization of the world and operates according to the rapidly changing digital environment. For example, it provided all United pilots with 11,000 iPads (Warren, 2011). Moreover, the company moves to paperless performance so that employees might receive the required information as soon as possible. Such a strategy leads to the employee’s convenience and cost minimization as well. Southwest Airlines applies “a point-to-point model as compared to the hub and spoke model of legacy carriers such as United Airlines” (Schmidt, 2015).

Consequently, the company offers customers lower flights and lower average flight time. Seeing the above strategy, Southwest Airlines arranges seats closer and reduces costs. Besides, the airline uses the fuel-efficient fleet of airplanes that contributes both to the innovativeness and the maintenance costs decrease.

Structural Design

Both companies apply specialization when the same employee performs the same task. Likewise, they use functional departmentalization that is the division of the organization into separate units, each of which has its own clearly defined roles and responsibilities. The specific activity of each department corresponds to the most significant areas of the company. In this case, the basic functional units of airlines are operating departments, implementation, and finance.

Speaking of the chain of command, one might note it both in Southwest Airlines and in United Airlines. More precisely, the hierarchy of the chain of command goes down from the board of directors to supervisors and then to employees, who perform the particular task.

The span of control of the mentioned airlines involves the particular area of operation, the number of employees, and the volume of the aircraft. In order to manage the span of control, Southwest Airlines supports the concept of decentralization (Ferrell, Fraedrich, & Ferrell, 2013). Similarly, United Airlines considers that the centralization would increase the customers’ costs and flight times. It seems important to note the formalization and optimization of the interaction between companies’ departments as these processes allow addressing emerging challenges better and faster.

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Organizational Culture

United Airlines’ HR management is at the highest level. The company values its employees and provides them with everything concerning what they are interested in, namely such artifacts as feeding them lunch, arranging closets with juice, and others. Consequently, everyone becomes a part of a huge mechanism, where each in his place and doing his job. The awareness that you are part of something important gives new incentives and suggests plenty of opportunities. Ultimately, the success of United Airlines depends on the concerted actions of all team members, each of which has specific responsibilities. Such a commonality blurs the lines of communication within the company. As a result, employees could express their views without fear of being improperly treated.

At the same time, Solomon (2012) emphasizes Southwest Airlines’ “relentless focus on culture, which none of its pop-up competitors was willing to slow down to emulate” (par. 2). It shows that the company evaluates employees as an indispensable part of the success. In spite of the current technological revolution and changing business realities, the staff takes the paramount value and, therefore, it is provided with all the necessary artifacts to meet employees’ requirements.

In this regard, the company introduces the following unique values: a warrior spirit, a servant’s heart, and a fun-loving attitude. The fun-luving attitude implies that the company “wants people who are proud to be here, people who have fun and luving attitude and don’t take themselves too seriously” (Makovsky, 2013, par. 5). The warrior spirit assumes being fearless to deliver the service while the servant’s heart means respect and responsiveness

Role of the Leader in Shaping Culture

According to Scandura (2016), “leadership is about inspiring others to follow their vision for the organization” (p. 42). Supporting the above statement, United Airlines implements the strategy of diversity and inclusion. Oscar Munoz, a President and Chief Executive Officer of the company, claims that the following criteria constitute the corporate culture of the airline and are ensured by the leader:

  • Dedication;
  • Focus on employees’ satisfaction;
  • Resourcefulness;
  • Effective communication between management and employees;
  • Freedom of action and toughness at the same time;
  • Equal opportunities (United Airlines, n.d.).

After all, the leader aims to create an appropriate working environment that would promote achieving high results along with staff satisfaction. What is more, the company’s leadership provides training that allows the staff to remain competitive and experienced. United Airlines ensures support and rewards to motivate employees to work harder. The leadership management designs examination tables for each department that allow taking into account the specifics of the personnel and the possibility of promotion. As a rule, the promotion is realized for such executive positions as executives apparatus of affiliated joint-stock companies; leading experts; specialists with appropriate education and positively proven in previous performance; and young professionals, who have successfully completed training.

The aim of Southwest Airlines is to provide employees with attractive opportunities for professional development, competitive remuneration, and social protection. The right recruits, flexible policies, rewards and pricing, and aspiration to improve constitute the leadership role in shaping the culture (Southwest Airlines, n.d.). The airline also tends to optimize its business processes and corporate structure and develops the innovative activity and professional excellence of the staff. The latter is procured by adequate and timely employees’ training.

It is essential to point out that during the selection of candidates for specific positions, United Airlines pays attention not only to the general requirements but also to the professional and personal peculiarities of the applicant. The following methods are used to control and train the staff:

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  • Analysis of the documentary evidence such as records, autobiographies, performance, certification, and other documents;
  • Interview to identify information of interest (desires, needs, motives, etc.);
  • Monitoring employees’ behaviors in different working situations.

Impact: Employee Turnover and Satisfaction

Considering the above analysis of Southwest Airlines and United Airlines’ organizational structures, it becomes obvious that both companies make efforts to meet their employees’ expectations. Therefore, the majority of employees like working for mentioned airlines. They appreciate the friendly and responsive atmosphere and teamwork. Besides, the staff is quite satisfied with rewards and training.

To sum up, the comparative analysis of two successful airlines showed that they have good organizational culture including effective communication, corporate identity, and elaborated human resources management system. It allows companies to execute the primary function of integration that connects employees and provides them with a sense of belonging to the organization and pride for it.

Impact: Organizational Performance

Southwest Airlines follows the well-organized culture, the corporate philosophy presents a kind of ideological platform, which is based on all of its activities in the field of corporate culture comprised of its mission, values, and basic principles of operation. The leadership of the company understands that passengers are the key contributors. Therefore, the main duty of all employees is to assist them. To do this, the corporate culture of the company is incorporated in the concept of development of such staff qualities as competence, teamwork, equal opportunities, understanding of the importance of relationships with passengers, a focus on customers’ satisfaction, and continuous improvement of service quality.


Ferrell, O. C., Fraedrich, J., & Ferrell, L. (2013). Business ethics: Ethical decision making & cases (9th ed.). Mason, OH: Cengage Learning.

Makovsky, K. (2013). Behind The Southwest Airlines Culture. Forbes. Web.

Scandura, T. A. (2016). Essentials of organizational behavior: An evidence-based approach. New York, NY: SAGE Publication.

Schmidt, A. (2015). Southwest’s Low Cost Strategy Helps Maintain a Competitive Edge. Market Realist. Web.

Solomon, M. (2012). What you can learn from Southwest Airlines’ culture. The Washington Post. Web.

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Southwest Airlines. (n.d.). Southwest Airlines. Web.

United Airlines. (n.d.). United Airlines. Web.

Warren, C. (2011). United Continental replacing pilot manuals with iPads. CNN. Web.

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