Bob Jordan, Southwest Airlines CEO, finds himself in eye of storm after holiday debacle

Jordan must lead the airline's recovery from the snowstorm and related technology breakdowns, which resulted in the cancellation of nearly 17,000 flights and are estimated to have cost the airline more than $1 billion. The high-profile systems meltdown occurred late in December, leaving thousands of U.S. passengers stranded and fuming.

Jordan, aged 62, was appointed CEO in February of this year. Despite the fact that no other airline has experienced a service disruption of this magnitude, the company has sent contradictory messages, claiming that its technology functioned perfectly and that the weather was to blame.

On January 28, the comedy sketch television show "Saturday Night Live" mocked the technology and service of Southwest, a Dallas-based airline.

When Chief Operating Officer Andrew Watterson testifies before the Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday, the carrier will now have to answer to the U.S. Congress. Some industry observers have wondered why Jordan did not accept the invitation despite his plans to attend an employee rally on Wednesday in Baltimore. Southwest claimed that other commitments interfered with the hearing.

Red Banyan CEO Evan Nierman commented, "I don't think they're being consistent enough about what message they're putting out. The public is more concerned about the computer system, not the weather system." Nierman went on to say about Jordan, "It is hard to imagine he has anything more pressing on his schedule than being present in Washington to testify before the lawmakers."

Eternal optimist

Jordan's performance during these trying times could determine its success. As the founder and CEO of JetBlue Airways Corp., David Neeleman, discovered in 2007 when the company experienced its own operational meltdown and he was forced to resign, difficulties like these can be costly for executives.

One Thunderstorm from a Meltdown

Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), warned on a podcast weeks before the holiday meltdown: "I fear that we are one thunderstorm, one (air traffic control) event, one router brownout from a complete meltdown. Whether that's Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or New Year, that's the precarious situation we are in."

SWAPA Vice President Tom Nekouei said that Jordan has the "fortitude" and potential to address Southwest's issues, but he has not yet implemented "a massive change in philosophy." Nekouei also criticized the business for resuming its dividend payment despite having a number of unresolved labor contracts, including those with the pilots.

Jordan, who is currently in his fifteenth position at Southwest, has defended the dividend decision by pointing to the solid balance sheet of the business.

Jordan announced a "back to basics" strategy in February 2022, shortly after taking over as CEO, with the goal of restoring the low-cost airline's previous operational reliability and effectiveness. One of the five focus areas of the plan was operations modernization.

Jordan appointed Watterson to lead Southwest's operations in October. Watterson joined Southwest in 1988 as a computer programmer. Jordan's best move yet, according to some union officials, is the appointment. One of the few outsiders in company leadership, Watterson joined Southwest in 2013 from Hawaiian Airlines, where he was vice president of planning. He has a strong background in operations, having worked for Oliver Wyman and E&Y. Jordan also appointed a chief information officer last week to oversee the airline's investments in, upgrades to, and system maintenance. Robert Mann, a former airline executive who now runs a consulting firm, stated that Jordan's second year as CEO will likely determine his future.