A Best Place to Work Takes Wing

There's are lots of reasons why the pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and other workers at Southwest Airlines love to work for the carrier. To begin with, much like the employees of Hyatt, who get free hotel stays, those at Southwest Airlines get unlimited standby flying privileges, which extend to their spouses, dependents (up to age 22) and parents. They can also earn guest passes to give to anyone they choose. "My parents use it more than I do," says Shari Conaway, the airline's "director of people."

Job applicants must demonstrate an ability to "live the Southwest way," a concept created about eight years ago. "We look for people with that warrior spirit, who desire to be the best and to work hard, can be innovative, courageous and persevere," says Conaway.

Employees also should have what's referred to here as the "servant's heart," demonstrating terrific customer service, as well as a fun-loving attitude and showing an ability to balance work and home life. "Everyone is evaluated on all of these. That's how we find the Southwest culture in people," notes Conaway. For instance, along with expertise in flying, prospective pilots must demonstrate good people skills with both customers and flight crews; only about 40 percent of candidates meet the criteria.

The tone of Southwest's corporate culture was set from the start by Herb Kelleher, who founded the company in 1971. Now 82, Kelleher recently told Fortune magazine that "The concept is simple, but the execution takes a lot of work and a lot of attention. If you're going to pay personal attention to each of your people, for instance, and every grief and every joy that they suffer in their lives, you really have to have a tremendous network for gathering information. We want to show them they're important to us as who they are, as people."

Southwest bought AirTran in 2011, and the combined airline now is home to 48,000 employees. Culture committees at each location create fun events like marshmallow-throwing contests and pumpkin-carving parties. Systemwide "spirit parties" invite employees and guests for a big "family" reunion. More than 1,000 people used their flight privileges to attend one recent spirit event in Las Vegas. And groups take "hooky days" to go to an airport and clean planes in between flights or go out in the middle of the night to grill food for the mechanics who do the bulk of their work while others sleep.

Some company benefits are more traditional; for instance, the 401K match extends up to 9.3 percent of a person's salary, and after a year of service employees can participate in profit-sharing. Southwest's University for People offers career-development classes online or at the Dallas campus, ranging from computer skills to leadership development.

The airline has been aligned with Ronald McDonald House for years, holding two annual benefit golf tournaments, in May and October, and encouraging volunteers to cook dinners for families staying at the facilities. But employees are not limited in where they can spend their volunteer time, and every 40 hours they give to an organization earns a roundtrip ticket that the charity can raffle off during its fundraisers.

In addition to all of the above, says Conaway, "Ticket agents, pilots, and flight attendants can trade shifts, pick up shifts — they love the ability to do that. And flight attendants can buddy-bid with their friends, so they know who they are going to fly with."

As founder Kelleher told Fortune, an employee once sent him a note saying, "Herb, I finally got it. You're making work fun, and home is work."