Southwest CEO Bob Jordan Faces a Giant Crisis, 10 Months Into the Job

The question that will loom over the company for a long time is why Southwest’s system broke down while those of other large airlines held up relatively well. Analysts say Southwest’s point-to-point network, which is quite different from the hub-and-spoke system used by its peers, made it harder to restart operations.

But they also say Southwest’s technology, despite yearslong efforts to modernize it, was lacking. And Mr. Jordan is likely to be asked why he didn’t do more to make the systems strong enough to deal with weather and technology disruptions, which have dogged Southwest in recent years, including two mass flight cancellations and delays last year.

Though Mr. Jordan has been chief executive for a short time, he has long been a member of Southwest’s senior leadership team, which would have given him plenty of opportunity to understand the company’s strengths and weaknesses. He started at the company as a computer programmer, helped develop its frequent flier program and aided in incorporating the planes and crews of AirTran Airways after Southwest acquired that company.

Robert W. Mann Jr., a former airline executive who now runs the consulting firm R.W. Mann & Company, said Mr. Jordan was “in the hot seat right now.”

But analysts were skeptical that Southwest could change quickly. They say the company’s management suffers from “Southwest exceptionalism,” or a stubborn belief that its unique approach to running an airline is best. Even though Southwest has it origins as an upstart taking on sleepy incumbents, analysts say its decision making can move at glacial speeds. “The airline has always been very cautious about change,” Mr. Engel said.

Southwest’s approach works well much of the time, and it has contributed to the company’s strong financial performance over the last five decades, analysts say. It allowed, for instance, for planes to be used more quickly for their next flight. Longtime shareholders have done well. Southwest’s stock is up 217 percent over the last decade, outpacing the wider stock market and its best-performing rivals. But this month, Southwest’s stock, down by nearly a fifth, has performed worse than the market and its peers.

There is no evidence that Mr. Jordan is vulnerable. But poor crisis management has severely weakened other airline executives.

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