Activist investor takes $1.9 billion stake in Southwest Airlines, calls for leadership changes

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Elliott Investment Management announced Monday it has taken a $1.9 billion stake in Southwest Airlines and said there needs to be new leadership at the Dallas-based carrier.

“Southwest’s poor execution and leadership’s stubborn unwillingness to evolve the company’s strategy have led to deeply disappointing results for shareholders, employees and customers alike,” said the statement from the firm. “Southwest’s rigid commitment to a decades-old approach has inhibited its ability to compete in the modern airline industry.”

The letter pointed out that Southwest’s share price is down more than 50% from early 2021 and now trades at a price lower than its pre-pandemic price in 2020. Southwest (LUV) stock gained more than 6% in trading Monday on the news of Elliott’s letter to the Southwest Board.

The airline has been particularly hurt by the fact that it only flies the Boeing 737 jet, and that the promised deliveries of the jets in at least the next year will be delayed by safety and production problems. It has been forced to freeze hiring of pilots as it will take delivery of only 20 of the 79 promised jets.

Ellioitt’s letter made no mention of a desire to change Southwest from an all-737 fleet, which would increase the cost of pilot training and spare parts.

While Boeing has caused problems for Southwest, some have been self-inflicted.

The carrier suffered massive operational problems during the year-end holiday travel period in 2022, causing it to cancel 16,700 flights between December 21 and 29 that year, or nearly half of its schedule.

The meltdown was attributed to antiquated staff scheduling software that made it difficult to recover from bad weather at the start of the period. The disruptions cost it more than $1 billion in passenger compensation, increased pay for staff and lost ticketing revenue, in addition to a $140 million fine by the Department of Transportation.

Its letter does not give details about the changes it wants to see, other than a change in leadership at the airline. It did say the management company wants to see “increased customer choice, improved cost execution and updating outdated IT systems, among other opportunities.”

Florida-based Elliott, whose web site said it managed about $65.5 billion in assets at the end of last year, was founded in 1977. It recently disclosed a similar $2.5 billion position in Texas Instruments and has reportedly made invests in Softbank and Johnson Controls recently.

Southwest is the one airline that does not have seat reservation for its passengers. CEO Bob Jordan told investors last month that the airline is “seriously studying” a possible change to that policy.

The company did not immediately respond Monday to a request for comment on Ellioit Management’s statement.

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