The bad news for Southwest Airlines is that the company’s meltdown this week because of severe winter storms is not its first crisis.
Earlier corporate emergencies included its cancellation of more than 1,800 flights over one weekend in 2021; a passenger who died after being partially sucked out of a window at 30,000 feet when an engine ruptured in 2018; and a technology failure that rendered the company’s computer system inoperable for several hours in 2016.
The good news for Southwest Airlines is that it came back from those crises, and there are several ways it could bounce back from their latest one.
But the road to recovery is not likely to be quick or easy, and will involve more than resuming normal operations, which the airline said it expects to happen on Friday.
Winning Back Trust
“The public isn’t so easy to forgive and forget and the airline is going to have to work hard to win back their trust,” Baruch Labunski, CEO of Rank Secure, said via email.
“That means compensating those it most severely impacted, and all passengers impacted to varying degrees, as well as offering incentives for passengers to try them again. It will also need to put some better systems in place that makes the logistics of such an event easier to manage and advertise to travelers,” he advise.
“The first thing Southwest needs to do is take complete ownership of the situation,” Katherine McLane, a PR and crisis communication expert and founder and CEO of Mach 1 Group, said via email.
“To date, they have blamed the problems on the weather—while in reality, the weather played a small part, system failures played a much more significant role. This statement needs not only to be shared with the traditional media and on social media but should be sent via email, text and push notification to every customer.
“Their message should include immediate steps they are taking internally to fix the issue, a timeline for passengers to expect to be reunited with their bags and receive refunds, and directions on submitting hotel/ride/meals for reimbursement,” she recommended.
Southwest Airlines “should make it crystal clear that the exact problem is…thus far there have been two competing ‘culprits’…inclement weather and unconventional flight patterns. The average passenger doesn’t fully comprehend the latter; a clearer explanation is needed…now!” Kirk Hazlett, an adjunct professor of communication at the University of Tampa, said via email.
“Second, Southwest should state clearly and concisely the exact steps that will be taken and the estimated timeframe for results. “We are doing XXXX, and we have set a target date of YYYY for completion.
Third, Southwest should take steps to reimburse every single passenger who has been inconvenienced by this snafu….and publicly state that it is doing so. I realize that this is incredibly difficult to accomplish, but at least make it publicly clear that it will happen,” Hazlett observed.
Howie Waterman, a crisis management advisor, recommended the airline company take the following steps:
- Conduct a post-mortem of what went wrong, develop a solid plan to fix it and develop a communications strategy to announce the enhancements/changes to begin to win back customers
Tell Positive Stories
- Find positive stories to tell to buy some time with unhappy customers
- Provide continually updated talk points to customer-facing teams on the progress you are making, so there is one unified message externally; otherwise, employees will make up answers
- Consider a daily update about everything Southwest is doing to get flights in the air and baggage to customers
- Compile statistics on how many customers were served/flown, and the number of customer interactions on southwest.com, via phone and Twitter since the crisis began to demonstrate the work being done with customers (strategically communicate publicly with customers)
- Communicate to their most loyal customer base, and provide incentives to continue flying Southwest
“When flights return to normal operations, Southwest needs to solicit feedback from the public to make customers feel heard while simultaneously conducting an internal investigation with transparent findings and clearly defined next steps,” McLane advised.
Maintain Corporate Philosophy And Business Model
Daniel Bubb, a professor and aviation history expert at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, said via email that Southwest Airlines, Southwest Airlines should:
- Adhere to their philosophy of the “Three Fs”: Fun: make the flight experience fun for passengers; Fares: offer low fares; Frequency: offer multiple flights daily to destinations (this would require more planes and flight crews)
- If they need to, trim the number of destinations the airline serves so that it doesn’t compromise its business model that has worked so well for the company.
“Southwest actually has a great business philosophy and attitude that is a model for many other businesses both inside and outside of the airline industry. They just need to invest more money into their operations side of the business,” Bubb concluded.