Alfred "Jack" Smith | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Alfred "Jack" Smith

Background:  

Southwest Airlines was established in 1967 and describes itself as the largest low-fare carrier in the United States.

The Mistake: 

I started out in the business as a ramp customer service agent — long before we had runways — in Syracuse, New York. We had a plane running late; it's dark and snowing. As a new person I'm told, "Hey, go out and meet that airplane. And we got to hustle, we got to turn this really quickly!" So, I go and get up there and open the door. The stairs were a part of the airplane then, they came from the belly out. And I'm in a trench coat, walking back down the stairs when the coat catches hold of the slide-bar on that door and pulls the slide out.

You'll see that attached to each of the doors on the airplane, normally there is a rubber slide that is inflated for an evacuation. Airplanes don't fly without those. So, here we've got a full airplane and it is going nowhere because I have caught that slide-bar on my coat and that slide ends up on the ground.

I was trying to do the best job I could do, but I was a new employee, in a rush. We canceled that trip and had nowhere to send any of the passengers.

Everything can be a little crisis here and there. But, sometimes you have to just slow down and take it as it is.

Let me tell you, I figured that was my last day on the job. And, I think my supervisor thought that, too. It scared me big time because I could see my airline career just evaporating. And I needed that job. There weren't a whole lot of others in Syracuse.

 

The Lesson:

On-time performance is important, but don't rush. It was an eye-opener for me, a big takeaway. If you do things in a safe and careful manner, you'll do it better. Make sure to follow the procedure and be methodical; really take your time and do it correctly.

Everything can be a little crisis here and there while you are working. But sometimes you have to just slow down and take it as it is. That's how I do business right now; I am a procedures person, and that experience just reinforced it in my business life.

Follow Southwest Airlines on Twitter at @SouthwestAir.

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