Crisis Management Lessons From Southwest Airlines’ Meltdown

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As Southwest Airlines struggles to recover from its weather-related meltdown, crisis management and crisis communication lessons have already emerged that business leaders should keep in mind before they have to confront their own crisis.

‘The Importance Of Modernization’

“The biggest lesson other business leaders can take from the Southwest implosion is the importance of modernization,” Wendy L. Patrick, a lecturer at San Diego State University’s Fowler College of Business, said via email.

A System Prone To Trouble

“Southwest’s failures admittedly arose from its outdated business practices. This includes the use of decades-old scheduling software, which failed to adjust to weather disruptions, to an old point-to-point baggage model that ships luggage from one city to another, instead of the modern hub-and-spoke model where routes are connected to a major hub,” Patrick explained.

Southwest Airlines uses a point-to-point system that allows it “to pick up different crews daily. When travel conditions are normal, this allows it to fly more routes in a 24-hour span than other airlines,” according to the Dallas Morning News.

“But when there’s a delay or a busy period, this can prove to be troublesome. And having crews scattered all over the country compounded the airline’s problems over the last week when it needed to reschedule lots of flights,” the newspaper noted.

Although he though Southwest will, Matt Colbert, founder of Emire Aviation Services, said that “Airlines can’t over invest in their IT backbons [and] can’t communicate early and often enough. [C]connectingwith their customers and colleagues needs to start from the very top.

“Policies and processes are the best prevention—institutional memories are short, people forget, but policies and processes do not,” he noted.

Avoiding Responsibility

“Instead of taking responsibility, Southwest’s management has responded by blaming the weather, the FAA, and its own employees for the crisis,” Moshe Cohen, who teaches leadershi, negotiation, organizational behavior and mediation at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, said via email.

“While the airline’s executives have kept largely out of sight, refusing to provide interviews, passenger horror stories, unfavorable comparisons with other airlines, and employee complaints have instead painted a picture of chaos and helplessness at Southwest,” he noted.

“Repeated apologies from the company’s management have done little to reduce people’s frustration and have provided little confidence in the airline’s ability to restore its service or take care of its passengers,” Cohen observed.

More Than Apologies Needed

“To rebuild confidence, Southwest’s management needs to go beyond apologies, take responsibility for the chaos and disruption, and articulate in the clearest terms possible what it’s doing to get back to normal operations. The message needs to be ‘we messed up, here’s what we’re doing to fix it, and this is what you can expect over the next few days.’ Only then can it hope to restore confidence and retain its customers,” Cohen advised.

A C+ Effort

Southest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan “made a decent effort in his December 27 apology. Were I still in the classroom, I would grade it a C+,” Gigi Marino, a communications consultant, said via email.

“Let’s begin with what he did right. First, he apologized. He spoke with empathy. He promised that customers will receive refunds and reimbursements. And he acknowledged Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s concerns—although it would have been a grave error to ignore the person who characterized the situation as a ‘meltdown,’ a term the media immediately glommed onto, which essentially branded the crisis,”she observed.

Falling Short

“That said, Mr. Jordan fell short in a few areas,” she continued. His apology should have been the first thing he said, not the second. And it should have been reflected what the thousands of travelers are experiencing and feeling right now. Rather than plunging into an explanation of why the delays are snowballing, he simply should have said, “We should have done better, and we will.” Marino noted.

Speaking To The Wrong Audience

Jordan also addressed Southwest employees, “which is a positive, but saying that he is ‘apologizing to them daily,’ again is something that should be communicated separately to employees—not to bone-weary travelers,” she pointed out.

Explanations Needed

“What Southwest needs to do to recover is be a lot more specific about how this failure happened and why. Many feel as if we’re not getting the whole story. Was it mainly the weather? Southwest’s unique map? Technology/systems? Was there a labor angle? If you’re going to blame myriad factors, you need to list them all while organizing and prioritizing them (“The main issue here was X, but Y and Z also played a contributing role.”), Nick Kalm, founder and president of Reputation Partners, said via email.

“Southwest needs to explain the detailed steps being put into place to prevent a recurrence (because we all know that weather events will happen again in the future) and be much more specific about how the airline is helping its severely impacted customers. Only then will many of us feel [as Southwest’s advertising says] ‘free to move about the country’ again.” he counseled.

Advice For Business Leaders

Pivot Before You Have An Emergency

“As leaders in business, we must always stay on the cutting edge of our operations management and customer service. What worked in one season will not always work in the next,” Lindsey Walker of Walker+Associates, said via email.

“Southwest has done well in terms of scaling, and I believe that they can and will bounce back from this crisis. However, it’s a warning for leaders in businesses of any industry [that] the demands and increase of your product or service will always require an increase in the tools, technology and resources,” she recommended.

Act Quickly On Feedback From Employees

Southwest pilots “have had complaints regarding the scheduling issues…and executive leadership was well aware, but they did not move on it in enough time to solve the problem,” Walker observed.

“As a leader, you have to be willing to implement when employees and staff are giving consistent feedback regarding the resources and tools necessary for them to do their jobs,” she concluded.



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