Southwest Airlines

Christine Ortega, Manager of Community Affairs & Grassroots, Communications & Strategic Outreach

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Southwest Airlines is proud to support qualified 501(c)(3) charitable organizations within the communities it serves, especially those that fall within its areas of strategic focus. Last year, Southwest Airlines received 14,968 donation requests and distributed more than 25,663 tickets and $1,266,950 in cash in response, for a combined value of more than $11.6 million in total contributions. 

Southwest Airlines is the United States' most successful low fare, high frequency, point-to-point carrier. Southwest operates more than 3,400 flights a day coast-to-coast, making it the largest U.S. carrier based on domestic passengers carried as of September 30, 2010. The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of customer service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride and Company Spirit. 

Christine Ortega is manager of community affairs & grassroots, communications & strategic outreach at Southwest Airlines. Ortega has worked at Southwest Airlines since 1989, serving in several positions, including as area marketing manager for the San Antonio/ Rio Grande Valley. She has served in her current position since 2004, where she works to establish national, regional and local partnerships that reflect the company spirit and that work with the needs of individual communities. Prior work for Ortega includes serving as director of media and marketing at the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities in San Antonio, Texas. She also worked from 1985 to 1989 as a TV producer for PBS in San Antonio. 

In her interview, Ortega spoke of Southwest Airlines' corporate responsibility areas of interest and its focus on people, planes and the planet. The airline was the first to have green planes, which use low emissions chemicals. 

Read the interview with Christine Ortega of Southwest Airlines:

How does Southwest Airlines' partnership with NLC fit into its mission?

We at Southwest are always looking at what is it in the community that's important? What is the good work that's happening in our communities? Who are those community partners that have the strong mission that benefits our community or our country? And how do we connect with them in a way that is helpful to them but, also at the same time, helpful to Southwest, where we're staying informed, we're staying connected and we're also providing benefits to the community through that organization? And that's how the National League of Cities fits into our Community Affairs and Grass Roots Initiative.

It's really more of a relationship function that the National League of Cities is important to the national fabric of our elected officials. NLC provides a resource to our elected officials that gives them guidance and provides best practices. Because of the strength that the National League of Cities has, Southwest Airlines wants to make sure that we can do something to help that and keep that viable and keep that strong, because we perceive that to be important for our leaders to have.

When we're partnering with some organizations like the National League of Cities, we don't put them into the charitable function, because this is really more relationship oriented. We want to make sure that we understand what the mission is and that we're engaged with National League of Cities. For example, if they have a need, we know what that is so we can try to help where we can, and even if we can't, maybe there's somebody that we know that might be able to address what their potential needs might be. Again, it is because the work that they do is critically important on a national landscape.

What is the mission statement and goals for corporate social responsibility at Southwest Airlines?

In our corporate social responsibility, the main goals that we look at are our performance, people and the planet - what we refer to as the triple bottom line. And when we're talking about people, we refer to both internal and external customers. An employee is considered an internal customer. At Southwest we refer to our employees, as our first customer. One of our hallmarks is that the internal customer comes first. The concept is that if we are able to take care of the internal customer and provide them with all the tools and the security that they need to do a good job and know their job, they will take care of our external customers.

What are Southwest Airlines' national program initiatives?

I can tell you, for example, when Rosa Parks passed away, the Rosa Parks Institute asked if there was a way for us to assist them in transporting her to Washington to lie in state. We did agree to help. That's an unusual example for a specific national event.

Tickets for Time is one of the programs in our civic and charitable department. If a group of employees from the culture committee decides to take on a project - for example, a day of tutoring for the YMCA - for every 40 hours of volunteer work to a nonprofit, that organization receives an airline ticket.

For the Southwest Airlines Charitable Department, some other focus areas are families facing serious illness, families separated by military service, the environment, disaster preparedness and youth mentoring or youth leadership.

All of the requests that come in are sorted by the cities that we serve. A local committee meets every month to discuss each request, so that the decisions are made at the local level as opposed to the corporate level. And typically the requests are for tickets to support fundraisers.

In what ways does Southwest Airlines demonstrate its corporate citizenship responsibilities at the local level?

I can tell you, for example, in some of our cities our culture committee will organize a golf tournament, and all the proceeds will go the Ronald McDonald House. For example, that happens in Houston every year.

What is the corporate philosophy for Southwest Airlines employees that want to support their communities?

The culture committee's function is to preserve the Southwest spirit and to show that we care about each other in the workplace. That's one way that the employees have determined that they want to express their support for community. There's no cookie cutter approach in terms of what the culture committees do across the country. Most of our volunteer activities are determined by the interest of our employees. What I have seen over the years is that, like politics, everything is local. So it's true with giving. Everything is local. People prefer to give to those organizations that they find relevant to their lives.

Does Southwest Airlines provide employees time during their workday to volunteer for local projects and programs?

Our employees end up giving to activities that they're engaged in in some way - whether it's their schools, whether it's their hospitals, whether it's their nonprofit organizations or their affinity group. We do have a system where they are allowed to record and submit their information on our online system, and then what will happen is as those hours accumulate, it will go into a bank for that nonprofit. And when those hours total 40 hours of donated time that organization will receive a complimentary ticket on Southwest Airlines that they can use for whatever they need. The ticket has no restrictions once it goes to the nonprofit. It's a donation to that nonprofit. They can use it any way they want.

Also, through Project Save, our employees collectively probably spent more than 2,200 hours planting trees and gardens and cleaning up community parks and beaches. I know also they did collecting of trash around airports. I think, for example, in L.A. a hundred employees volunteered for (Million) Trees LA, an effort to plant one million trees in Los Angeles. So in one day, the Southwest volunteers planted 70 trees. So I think that was a concerted effort to increase the air quality and the shade and reduce energy consumption. I think the trees also were important to increase water retention and increase the canopy.

Does Southwest Airlines engage in disaster assistance? With the number of floods and storms that we've had throughout the U.S., do you have a philosophy around assisting in those areas?

Our charitable department has a focus on disaster preparedness. So when a request comes in for a charitable organization, we do have the ability to respond and, of course, that is one of the areas that we focus on. We do have a very close relationship with the Red Cross, and we work closely with them across the country to help with all kinds of disasters. When we, for example, heard about the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, the Community Affairs and Grassroots Team reached out to the University of Miami, because they have a hospital and a clinic in Haiti. And working through the University of Miami, we were able to provide transportation to the medical technicians and medical experts that needed to be working in Haiti. So we would fly them into Florida as they volunteered.

The University of Florida has a program called Project Medishare, and that's the project that we participated in with our partnership through the University of Miami. Project Medishare basically provides medical expertise through Miller Medical Center. And they basically were able to transport people from Southern Florida into Haiti and continued to do that through the end of last year. The University of Miami would get calls from medical professionals saying, "This is my expertise, I'll be on vacation these 2 weeks, I'll be happy to donate my time." And so that's pretty much how they were able to mobilize so many medical professionals into Haiti. So we would fly them in through Florida, and they were already in coordination with the University. And then they would do their tour. Typically it was a two-week tour to support the disaster relief efforts in Haiti last year.

Do you have any additional comments?

I do know that our focus is also in terms of just being green, and I think we were the first airline, for example, to have the first green aircraft. We used low emissions chemicals, and that's an important part of our care for the planet.


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