Southwest CEO eager to travel on the grounded 737 Max

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Southwest Boeing 737 Max 8
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

DENVER -- Southwest CEO Gary Kelly says he'd like to be on the carrier's first flight with the 737 MAX after the aircraft is allowed back in service by FAA safety regulators.

"I'd love to," Kelly said. "Tell me when it is."

Southwest, which was operating the world's largest fleet of 737 Max prior to the aircraft's grounding in March, has pulled the plane from its schedule through Aug. 5. Speaking at the company's annual shareholders' meeting Wednesday, Kelly said he remains hopeful the aircraft will be back in the air by then. But with Boeing having yet to make a certification flight that had been planned for last week, and with House lawmakers holding a hearing about FAA safety oversight Wednesday, Kelly acknowledged that plenty of uncertainty remains over when the Max will be back. 

"Hope isn't a strategy, it's true. I am hopeful. I'm not predicting," he said. 

The grounding of Southwest's 34 Max aircraft has resulted in Southwest delaying launch announcements on flights to Hawaii from San Diego and Sacramento, as well as the delay of a launch announcement for flights to Kauai.

Kelly's 737 comments were among wide-ranging remarks he made during the shareholders' meeting, which was held in Denver because of the city's status as Southwest's fourth-largest city, offering as many as 224 daily departures this summer. 

On a different subject, Kelly expressed frustration with the pace of improvement in the functionality of Southwest's WiFi. Early this year, the carrier dropped WiFi provider Panasonic Avionics. It continues to work with longtime WiFi provider Global Eagle. He said that the vendor has increased WiFi performance multiple fold. 

"It is never going to be great in the near term, but it has at least gotten better," Kelly said.

Kelly also weighed in on Southwest's net promoter score, which is a key metric of customer loyalty, saying that it continues to be industry-leading and has held solid.

Still, Southwest has faced serious difficulties since last spring, including the first fatality aboard a U.S. passenger airliner since 2009 and a raft of cancellations this winter and spring due to the Max grounding as well as a dispute between Southwest and its maintenance workers' union. 

"I wouldn't say we're worried, but we always want to make sure we are working hard to win every customer because it is a very competitive industry," Kelly said. "Our competitors are healthier now than they've been in a generation, so we dare not let our guard down."

In some of the more contentious moments of the meeting, Kelly was challenged by workers employed by Southwest contractors.  

Maria Romero, a wheelchair attendant at LAX, said she had worked for a Southwest contractor for 13 years but when Southwest switched to a non-union contractor called S.A.S. Services last September, she lost her seniority and health benefits.

"What are you going to do to make sure that your company, Southwest Airlines, only works with responsible contractors," Romero asked.

Kelly responded that Southwest doesn't control the practices of the companies it contracts with. 

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