Column: Southwest sends signal to Atlanta by naming Veronica Biggins to board

By Maria Saporta
Friday, August 26, 2011

When Southwest Airlines elected Atlanta’s Veronica Biggins to its board, it sent a strong signal on several levels.

Biggins is the first African-American to serve on Southwest’s board. She also was on the board of AirTran, which Southwest acquired in May for $1.4 billion. And because AirTran’s operational base was in Atlanta, Biggins’ presence on Southwest’s board will mean that Atlanta will be represented.

“Veronica is the total package,” said Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest, after participating in the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s “Insights in Leadership” lunch on Aug. 22. “It’s always helpful to have diversity, whether it’s gender, ethnic or geographic diversity. We wanted to have a link to AirTran. That was important. And diversity was equally important.”

Kelly said the Southwest board met Aug. 18, when it nominated Biggins to the board. He also said that Biggins’ professional background was another plus.

Biggins is the Atlanta managing director of Diversified Search, formerly Hodge Partners. She also was a senior partner and head of diversity practice at Heidrick & Struggles; and she served as director of presidential personnel under President Bill Clinton.

“Obviously I’m pleased,” Biggins said. “Southwest is a great organization with great leadership. I think their presence here will be an addition to this community.”

When Biggins was being asked to join the board, every single Southwest board member called her personally.

“I have never seen that before in my life,” Biggins said.

Southwest’s civic role

One area that is going to be tricky for Southwest is its involvement in the community compared to the multifaceted role AirTran has played.

Although it was legally based in Orlando, Fla., AirTran treated Atlanta as its hometown — investing millions of dollars a year in civic contributions, airline tickets and sponsorships.

“Obviously Southwest has got a great presence in a number of cities and it wants to be fair in what they do as far as the community is concerned,” Biggins said when asked about the possible differences.

Southwest CEO Kelly acknowledged that there would be changes.

In response to a question at the lunch, Kelly said: “We try our dead level best to be the hometown airline in every city we serve. AirTran has done a phenomenal job in the Atlanta community. We will try to carry on that tradition. But we will do it in the Southwest way with a different budget and different style.”

In the interview after the lunch, Kelly said that Southwest’s civic role in Atlanta “will need to be consistent” with what the airline does in Dallas, Denver, Chicago and its other major destinations.

“We don’t have unlimited funding for these kind of things, and we are not going to hit our profit line,” Kelly said. “We will be involved. I feel very confident that Atlanta will know that Southwest loves Atlanta.”

That said, Kelly added that Southwest will not have any corporate functions based in Atlanta. But he said corporate officers from Dallas would regularly visit Atlanta.

Combining fleets

Southwest also was focus at the Aero Club of Atlanta’s luncheon on Aug. 23.

Kirk Thornburg, vice president of technical services for Southwest Airlines, spoke about the challenges of integrating the aircraft fleets of Southwest and AirTran.

Thornburg joined Southwest about two months ago after being head of maintenance for AirTran. AirTran’s fleet of 140 planes, most 10 years or younger, is being combined with Southwest’s fleet of 550 planes, many of which are significantly older.

Thornburg said the combined airline will be the third-largest airline in the world in terms of originating passengers and the fifth-largest in terms of its fleet.

Serving military members

An effort is under way to make Georgia a center in helping military service members transition from active duty back into civilian life.

On Sept. 1, two major events — one at the Cobb Galleria Centre and the other in Columbus — will showcase plans to create a pilot program to serve 100 military families re-entering society and help alleviate their post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide risk.

The Healthcare Institute for Neuro-Recovery and Innovation (HINRI) is partnering with Warrior 2 Citizen to establish the respite center at Callaway Gardens. According to Warrior 2 Citizen, in 2009, the Army sustained 239 active-duty suicide deaths as well as 146 deaths related to high-risk behavior such as drug use. There also were 1,713 known attempted suicides.

“Warrior 2 Citizen has the most successful suicide prevention program in the nation for the National Guard and National Reserves,” said Ross Mason, founder of HINRI, who is hoping to raise about $2 million to establish the program at Callaway Gardens. “We should commit to make Georgia the No. 1 state in the nation in programs and services for military men and women and their families.”

The Sept. 1 luncheon event at the Cobb Galleria is being co-sponsored by The Home Depot Inc., Kaiser Permanente and Piedmont Hospital.

Leaders hosting the event include Johnny Isakson, Sandra Deal, David Ratcliffe, Bo Callaway, Tom Chapman, Bud Peterson, Jimmy Blanchard and Louis Sullivan, among others.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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