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


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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