Here’s to an airline, its people and their commitment to our community.
By: Kim Bridger-Hunt
Photo by: David Olds Fotografie
In 1977, one of the most listened-to songs in America was “Hotel California,” made popular by The Eagles. That was the same year that Jimmy Carter was elected president and the Apple II, complete with a case, keyboard and a power supply, hit the marketplace at a base cost of about $1,300. The Apple II represented a huge leap toward what we now know as the computer age.
But Apple wasn’t the only company making a splash that year. A 5-year-old company called Southwest Airlines was making a name for itself offering low fares and friendly service, and using a marketing slogan that promised to spread love all over Texas. In 1977, Corpus Christi got in on that love.
On March 1 of that year, a Southwest jet pulled up to Gate 5 at Corpus Christi International Airport (CCIA). Met by a welcoming contingency of local leaders, the inaugural Southwest Airlines flight arrived to all the fanfare you would expect. At 10:45 a.m., that first flight took off to Houston Hobby.
For longtime residents, those early days of Southwest at CCIA were memorable. There was something special about how this company operated. There was something special about the way it communicated with customers. There was something special about the people who worked for Southwest Airlines. Perhaps there was something to this whole “love” thing.
Times were simpler back then. And for an airline that pledged to make air travel affordable for the masses, Southwest employees also seemed committed to making it fun. From the clothes they wore to the humorous announcements over the intercom, the men and women of Southwest Airlines seemed to march to the beat of a different drum. That unique style and quirky way of doing things blossomed over the years, and is now an endearing part of the fabric of the Coastal Bend community.
When you talk to the people of Southwest Airlines, you quickly get a sense of what makes them tick. They make no bones about how much they love their customers, love their company and love their community. They show it with more than words.
It’s all about the people.
Eddie Rodriguez is one of the most highly decorated Southwest employees you’ll meet. But that’s not something he freely tells you about himself. “I have never had a bad day at Southwest,” said Rodriguez, when asked about his favorite part of the job. As a ramp agent, Rodriguez is responsible for marshalling the aircraft in to the gate and back out again. He does the job with the kind of precision you’d expect from a 30-year veteran.
But before he comes to work most days, he is marshalling the cooking, cleaning and serving of meals at the Mother Teresa Homeless Shelter in Corpus Christi. “I like to talk a lot,” Rodriguez said. “And I think that’s why I enjoy helping the homeless. As long as we are talking with them and praying with them, we are keeping them engaged.”
As Rodriguez racks up hours at the shelter, he is turning those hours in to Southwest and getting credit toward other rewards. Once he earns enough hours, he qualifies for airline passes that he donates to the shelter for their fundraising auction each year. The end result is that people get the help they need. “They can use lockers. They can take showers. If they need shoes, they are given shoes,” Rodriguez said. “Southwest has given me the opportunity to help people in this community. Southwest has given me everything.”
So it’s no big surprise that Rodriguez has earned a tremendous amount of recognition at Southwest Airlines. He has been named a “Hospitality Hero,” and back in November, he was handed the “Winning Spirit Award.” Even after all these years, he says he has no plans to stop any time soon. People tell him that in all the years he’s worked at Southwest, he hasn’t changed a bit. He chalks it up to the joy and happiness he gets from his work and his passion for helping people. “I’m 59 years old, and I have no stress,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve never treated my hair with anything but mousse.”
Customer Service Rep
When you visit CCIA, you could easily miss Cindy Flores from a distance. At 5 feet tall, Flores doesn’t exactly tower over the counter. But she more than makes up for it with her welcoming personality. She isn’t shy about engaging customers in conversation. While booking flights and collecting and tagging luggage, Flores is also reading the mood of her customers. “I see people who are excited to take a trip, people who are in tears,” she said. “When they are struggling for some reason, we cry with them. People open up to me. I think they can tell I care.”
Getting to know Flores is to better understand the significant role that she plays in the lives of families who rely on the Ronald McDonald House in Corpus Christi. Southwest Airlines and its employees contribute countless hours and monetary donations to Ronald McDonald Houses all over the country. It’s a commitment that runs deep. From preparing Thanksgiving meals to cleaning and buying supplies for the house, Flores and her coworkers approach their volunteering the same way they do serving customers at the airport. “We want to give them whatever they need,” she said.
Flores tells the story of a 6-year-old girl named Laura who had cancer and who was a frequent visitor to the Ronald McDonald House, along with her parents. Flores got to know the little girl and her family. She fondly recalls the times she and her daughter would load Laura up in their Suburban and take her to the mall for a day of shopping. When Flores’ daughter got married, Laura, who was very ill at the time, attended the wedding. Laura died two days later. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think about that little girl,” Flores said. “I think God put her in my path for a reason.”
Most would agree that it takes special people to work at the Ronald McDonald House. Perhaps it’s people like Flores, who inherently know what people need, when they need it, and how to make the most out of every moment. When asked what she likes most about her job, she said, “The people. I’m always smiling. I’m happy that I’m here. I love my job.”
Customer Service Supervisor
Abel Tamez is the first to admit how dramatically air travel has changed over the years. He remembers the days when people checked in at the ticket counter, walked down a long open air hallway to the Southwest gate at CCIA and got their plastic boarding passes when they arrived. One thing that hasn’t changed is the need to connect with customers. “I love laughing, joking around with customers,” Tamez said. “Sometimes it makes their day. It’s about the customer. It’s all about them.”
Tamez was born and raised in Robstown. During his 20 years at Southwest, he has also managed to carve out time to give back to his hometown. He served for 12 years on the Robstown City Council. Admitting that politics can sometimes be tough, Tamez saw his public service as a way to help his small town. “We were very aggressive with getting grants as a way to pay for improvements,” Tamez said. And just like his joking antics at the airport, he became known for injecting a little personality in to the city council meetings. “I kept things lively,” he said. “Kept the crowd laughing, too.”
Tamez gets excited about the prospect of his hometown growing and changing for the better. He’s particularly happy about the new outlet mall and the boost in sales tax that will come with it. And even though he’s no longer on the city council, he cheers for his town and is thankful he had the opportunity to serve in that capacity. “They say the meetings aren’t the same without me,” Tamez said. “It’s good to be missed.”
Tamez says the training he received from Southwest Airlines helped prepare him for what he did on the city council. “It all comes down to helping people,” Tamez said. “That’s what I enjoy.”
Looking to the future
As Southwest Airlines begins its 41st year serving the Coastal Bend community, the company is growing and changing in ways that were unimaginable back in 1977. Southwest now serves 90 destinations throughout the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean. Some of these new international destinations are available out of Houston Hobby, which means one stop and one plane change for travelers from the Coastal Bend.
“Our model represents the ability to bring people to Houston where they can connect to one of more than 150 nonstop flights to more than 50 destinations,” said Kelly Knox, community affairs and grassroots at Southwest Airlines. When it comes to Corpus Christi, Knox said, “we enjoy a fantastic partnership with the community while connecting our customers to places that are important to them.”
In 2017, Southwest will continue to expand by opening their Fort Lauderdale International concourse, which will be very similar to their concourse in Houston and will mean the addition of service to Grand Cayman. Knox made a point to say, “thank you,” to the customers who choose to fly Southwest. “It’s our customers who allow us to continue flying to and from Corpus,” she said, “and without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
Loyalty goes both ways. And there’s been a lot of that going around since that day in 1977, when Southwest Airlines brought its special people and special brand of caring service to the Coastal Bend.
Kim Bridger-Hunt is the marketing manager at the Corpus Christi International Airport. For more information, contact her at email@example.com.