Interview: Inflight Safety with Southwest's Elise May

Airways sits down with Elise May, Senior Program Manager, Inflight Safety & Regulatory Compliance at Southwest Airlines.



May 20, 2023

DALLAS — While most of us immediately think of Pilots and Flight Attendants when we think of airline positions, there are actually many more important roles that keep an airline running safely.

Airways had the opportunity to speak with Elise May, Senior Program Manager, Inflight Safety & Regulatory Compliance at Southwest Airlines (WN).

WN operates a fleet of more than 700 Boeing 737 aircraft and has 400 units on order. Photo: Alberto Cucini / Airways

NE: Could you please share some information about your role at Southwest Airlines? 

EM: As the Senior Program Manager Inflight Safety and Regulatory Compliance at Southwest Airlines I am fortunate to be part of an elite team that places a high emphasis on the safety of our cabin crew. My role centers around supporting our Flight Attendants and also building and maintaining good relationships with our regulators, such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA),  Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)

Until recently, I  managed our Inflight Fatigue Risks Management Program for the Flight Attendants of Southwest Airlines. I had the privilege of introducing this valuable program about four years ago, which included development, training, execution, and oversight. The program allows our flight attendants to report fatigue events or concerns while helping the company identify trends that may lead to fatigue. 

I am also involved in our Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP). After starting this program 12 years ago and managing it for several years, I now serve as the company representative on the Event Review Committee. ASAP is a voluntary reporting tool for our crews to share safety-related information to help drive change. It lets our flight attendants be part of the solution to safety challenges.  

Flight Attendant investigations, including injuries, accidents, and incidents also fall under my role. We always want to learn from any safety event and make enhancements where needed.

During Covid, like every airline, my Coworkers and I were heavily involved in mask compliance challenges. We supported the TSA and FAA with their investigations and in their efforts to hold passengers accountable to the mask mandate. To say there is never a dull moment is an understatement!

You are the Senior Program Manager Inflight Safety and Regulatory Compliance. How is your position structured? 

I’m part of an incredible team that includes a managing director, senior manager, managers, consultants, and supervisors under the Inflight Safety umbrella. We each have an area of expertise such as assurance/fatigue, policies/procedures, risk management, and training/promotions.

How do you work with the regulators such as the FAA, TSA, or the NTSB? 

The entire Inflight Safety Team works very closely with our regulators. We work with the FAA to make sure all the regulations are being met, and if there is a violation, we determine the root cause and any type of corrective action. 

During Covid, we offered assistance to the TSA with their follow-up for mask events. Some of these events involved interviewing our crew members, and I helped facilitate those meetings.

After receiving training from the NTSB in accident investigation, I act as the inflight liaison for emergency response situations. 

While the inflight safety department focuses on flight attendants, the flight operations department is more focused on pilots. Photo: Otto Kirchof/Airways

Can someone evolve to other positions after this job?

That depends on where an individual’s passion takes them! A position such as this certainly provides experience and exposure to different parts of the airline and the aviation industry as a whole. An individual would be well equipped to take this knowledge to a corporate safety department or any operational safety department.

This position would also prepare a person for a position with a regulatory agency or any role that really focuses on safety and compliance. 

Can you take us through your career in aviation? How did you get to your current position?

My aviation career started in 1991 when Delta Air Lines took a chance on this young woman from small-town Arkansas. I thought I would fly for a year and see the world. Never would I have guessed I would still be in the industry 32 years later!

The world opened up to me as a flight attendant, and I thoroughly enjoyed flying on both domestic and international trips. I later became an Inflight Training Facilitator and enjoyed helping new flight attendants fulfill their dreams.

After 15 years at Delta, I was offered a job with Southwest Airlines. This new role allowed me to be home with my young son while keeping me in an industry that I enjoyed.  Once at Southwest, I learned about all the non-flying positions that supported our frontline employees. I quickly discovered a passion for the safety side of the operation and consider myself fortunate to have found a second career about which I am passionate. 

When I was a flight attendant, I had no idea how much hard work was involved behind the scenes to keep crew members and all employees as safe as possible. Our flight attendants are dedicated safety professionals and the best in the industry. Being able to support them so they can take care of our Customers is really an honor. 

I am proud to say that a small-town girl has an entire family who has embraced the same love of aviation and made it their career. My late husband was a pilot, and our daughter (customer relations) and son (pilot) have followed in our footsteps.

How do you work with other departments at your airline? 

Our robust Safety Management System (SMS) drives departments to work together to identify hazards and mitigate risk. Any procedural change in one department is carefully analyzed and reviewed to ensure that the change will not adversely affect another work group.

There are teams in place to ensure verbiage in operating manuals does not contradict each other. This allows employees to have consistent resources. Safety data is shared among work groups, and we continue to make our operation as safe as possible through strong collaboration.

In addition to the more obvious departments of Flight Operations, Ground Operations, and Technical Operations, Inflight Safety works hand-in-hand with our Safety & Security department as we conduct safety debriefs and investigations. 

Many airline employees get special advantages, such as low-price tickets. Photo: Michael Rodeback/Airways

How does the airline respond in the event of a major accident?

We have a Go Team, consisting of representatives from each department and our labor groups, which is deployed immediately to the accident side. I represent Inflight Safety on this team as part of the survival factors division. My role is to support our flight attendants and work with the NTSB on their investigation.

Other members of our team will assist with gathering and analyzing procedures, and training records, and performing any number of additional important tasks. If recommendations are received, they will work diligently to incorporate those into our operation. 

The company also has a robust family assistance group that supports the families of our crews and passengers who were onboard the affected flights. Of course, the entire airline would work with our regulators and the NTSB to help as much as possible.

 What is your role when minor incidents happen?

Depending on what the incident entails, it may necessitate following up with our crew to ensure their well-being and offer any assistance they may need. We often conduct a safety debrief in which we speak with the crew to get a better understanding of exactly what happened. This helps determine if our procedures worked as intended or if we have opportunities for improvement.

The main thing is we always want to give our crew the care and support that they need after any type of safety event.

Do you get special benefits from working at Southwest?

We have comprehensive medical coverage and a generous retirement savings/profit-sharing plan to help employees plan for the future. 

Southwest also has great travel benefits for employees and their dependents. We can travel space available on our airline for no cost. We also have reduced fares on other carriers for standby travel. Many other travel-related industries such as hotels and rental cars offer reduced rates for our employees.

We really can travel the world even to destinations Southwest does not yet offer service.

According to, as of April 2022, WN operates an average of more than 3,500 flights a day. Photo: Andrew Henderson/Airways

In the longer term, what are the projects you are working on to improve safety at your airline?

As our airline grows, Inflight Safety will continue to help evaluate onboard offerings and safety enhancements. We will remain a committed partner to our training team as we welcome more flight attendants onboard.

We will continue to evolve our SMS and identify the root cause(s) of incidents or systemic issues. We have a very strong safety culture that grows and strengthens on a daily basis. Our people are our most important asset and always want to provide the safest working environment possible.

I am honored to sit on the Cabin Operations Committee at Airlines for America where I am able to collaborate with other carriers. We identify challenges to the industry and work toward improvements.  Safety is the one part of the business that is not competitive, and we have valuable relationships among our partners within the industry. We will continue to foster these relationships and learn from each other.

If somebody wants to do a similar job, would he need special classes or skills?

A general understanding of the aviation industry is a good start. Knowledge and experience in aviation safety specifically would definitely be important and beneficial. There are many universities that offer aviation classes and majors on such topics as management, safety, and operations. Any courses under those umbrellas would be helpful. 

An understanding of the federal regulations is also important as they are there to protect our employees and our customers. If an individual has an opportunity to work with the regulators, that would be valuable. 

It is good to make as many connections as possible in the industry. Having good relationships with my counterparts at other carriers is very beneficial, and that benefit was really seen during the pandemic as there was constant information sharing. We share quite a bit of information and best practices and really work collaboratively as an industry. 

What are the main advantages and disadvantages of your job?

This position allows for a global look at the airline and the value each person and department brings. When I was a flight attendant, I didn’t realize there were so many individuals working diligently on my behalf to make sure my coworkers and I were safe. I have been able to get an up-close look at all the different parts of the airline and how they come together to create a successful operation.

I am very fortunate to work with incredibly talented, passionate, and dedicated individuals both at my company and across the world, and I have learned from every single one of them. I would not trade a second of my 32-year career.

As far as disadvantages, I don’t really think there are any because I enjoy my role and find great satisfaction in supporting our flight attendants. Some may consider it a disadvantage that safety does not always turn off at five o’clock, but you just have to be flexible!

Featured image: Ryan Scottini/Airways