Colleen Barrett – Fast 50 2003


Colleen Barrett was a secretary at the law firm that helped Southwest Airlines take off in 1971. Thirty years later, she took the helm as president, just three months before the September 11 attacks. Barrett directed the effort to get the airline flying again, reassuring customers and employees and securing the company’s financial stability. Southwest quickly resumed its trajectory as the most celebrated airline in America.


Colleen Barrett
President and COO, Southwest Airlines Co.
Dallas, Texas


Tell us what you do (or what your team or organization does) and the specific challenge you faced.
Shortly after the events of Sept. 11, it became clear the next few years for competitors in the airline industry were going to be tough to say the least. Having taken the helm of Southwest just three months before those tragic events, President Colleen Barrett was faced with a challenge she could never have imagined. In 48 hours, she directed an effort that would get the airline flying again; help secure the company’s financial stability; immediately produced advertising to speak to the nation and Southwest Customers about our service; and ensured Employees that their jobs would be a cost-cutting measure of last resort.

What was your moment of truth?
The aftermath of Sept. 11 left huge questions as to Southwest’s ability to provide convenient, affordable air travel. Colleen and the executive team set out immediately with the priority to restore convenience to the airport experience, dubbing 2002 “The Year of the Airport.” Employees were hired (while other airlines were furloughing); security checkpoint lanes were expanded; more equipment was purchased for screening; automated boarding cards were introduced to allow for multiple airport check-in locations; and kiosks were introduced as a way to help Customers avoid long airport lines. (The exact date? 1/1/2002)

What were the results?
The result was that by Sept. 1, 2002, Southwest told the flying public that all airports it served were back to one-hour recommended check-in times. The airport hassle perception had successfully been diminished–at least for Southwest Customers. Its website declared that convenience had largely been restored and that Customers could show up when they want to for their flights.

What’s your parting tip?
Follow the Golden Rule; learn from your mistakes; take the initiative; and listen to your heart.