Southwest Airlines Winter Disaster Offers 4 DEI Lessons To Companies Across Industries


‘Twas the week of Christmas, when all throughout the United States not many people were spared from an especially brutal winter storm that wreaked all sorts of havoc — car accidents, rolling blackouts and power outages, busted pipes and flooding, and much colder than usual temperatures.

Although flight delays and cancellations affected every airline, Southwest was hardest hit. A few of its Christmas Eve flights went dashing through the snow, while nearly 3,500 others were suspended on what became a not-so-silent night for stranded customers. Between December 22-28, Southwest halted approximately 15,700 flights. Even though the storm has eased up some, its effects on this one airline hasn’t. According to CNN, on the third day after Christmas, more than 94% of canceled flights in the U.S. belonged to Southwest. Bah humbug.

There was nothing any airline could do about the magnitude of this most recent winter storm. But why did it have such an especially calamitous effect on Southwest? There are at least four explanations, each of which has analogous implications for the mishandling of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in companies across sectors, including the airline industry.

1. Reliance On Outdated Systems

Reportedly, Southwest has used the same technology system since the 1990s. “Our IT infrastructure for our scheduling software is vastly outdated,” Captain Michael Santoro, vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said in a television interview this week. “It can’t handle the number of pilots [and] flight attendants that we have in the system with our complex route network.”

Despite growth in the number and diversity of employees and customers, many businesses approach DEI the same ways they did 30 years ago: the annual cultural food potluck, a recycled Martin Luther King Day note from the CEO, one obligatory Asian Heritage Month program, pathetically low monetary deposits into employee resource group accounts year after year, and ineffective sit-watch-click-quiz online implicit bias trainings.

Other airlines were innovating as Southwest kept doing business with its outdated system. Similarly, some companies have introduced sophisticated technologies, structures, systems, policies, programs, and practices to innovate DEI. Industry peers and companies across other sectors often fail to learn from and adapt these DEI advancements. Instead, they convince themselves, like Southwest did, that what they’ve been doing with less money and low effort will continue to be good enough.

2. Waiting Until The Big Disaster Strikes

It snows every winter in the United States. Surely, there were several indicators of the fragility of Southwest’s outdated tech system long before the 2022 winter blast. But for some reason, the company’s emergency preparedness was beyond insufficient and underdeveloped. Someone had to know before now how susceptible the airline was to a winter crisis of epic proportions. But why didn’t they take the cues more seriously?

Workplace climate assessments, employee experience polls, exit interviews, disaggregated employee turnover data, pay equity analyses, discrimination and harassment lawsuits, Glassdoor reviews, customer critiques posted to social media, and employee reports to HR about workplace encounters with various -isms and -phobias (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, etc.) are all DEI data points that reveal a company’s vulnerability. Despite this, executives and other leaders wait until there’s an embarrassing, oftentimes costly crisis to take action. As is the case with Southwest, the impact could’ve been minimized had leaders acted sooner.

3. Failing To Learn From Others

There’s at least one major weather event every year that results in numerous flight delays and cancellations — sometimes it’s the result of snow and ice, other times a massive hurricane causes it. A winter storm in March 2018 resulted in more than 16,000 cancellations.

Regardless of how modern their tech systems are, one or two airlines are typically more severely impacted than are others. For example, it was Delta in April 2017 that left thousands of travelers stranded as it canceled more than 6,000 flights. Apparently, it was Southwest’s turn this time. But why didn’t its leaders analyze and learn from the missteps that Delta and other competitors made in prior years? And why didn’t they use what they learned to preemptively prepare for their company’s turn?

Leaders in other industries similarly fail to learn from DEI missteps and tragedies that have occurred elsewhere. For some reason, many erroneously presume their companies will somehow be exempt from or miraculously less affected by DEI crises that devastated other businesses within and beyond their industries.

4. Leaving Loyalists On Hold

Customer enthusiasm for the brand is one thing that has long distinguished Southwest from its peers. Its loyalists speak so lovingly about the company’s longstanding no fees for two checked bags and its no-penalty flight change process, as well as its overall easygoing culture. They seem to really like that Southwest flight attendants typically tell jokes and that passengers aren’t pre-assigned seats on aircrafts.

Too bad the company has disappointed so many of its enthusiasts by failing to reunite them with their checked baggage after flights got canceled, plus having them hold on the phone for several hours desperately seeking rebooking information. In an Instagram post, Michelle Perkins included screenshots of the more than four hours she spent on hold with Southwest.

Southwest passengers aren’t the company’s only enthusiasts – its employees are, too. One person tweeted about a gate agent who broke down crying after being told to keep working after 16 hours. Like customers, many employees have been stuck on the phone awaiting answers. Lyn Montgomery, president of Transport Workers Union 556, which represents more than 15,000 Southwest flight attendants, posted screenshots of flight attendants waiting on the phone 5-8 hours to receive scheduling assignments.

Customers, clients, and employees who are loyal to businesses expect leaders to be more responsive when there’s a DEI breakdown. The problem is that there’s no real infrastructure to ensure responsiveness and immediate remedies. When DEI has been done on the cheap and haphazardly, there’s nothing a CEO can do within a few days or even weeks. Apologizing, acknowledging the failure, and accepting accountability will be enough to satisfy some loyalists. Issuing the equivalent of refunds, travel vouchers, and airline miles will suffice for some others.

The rigorous implementation of reliable structures and systems that eliminate (or at very least, severely minimize) the potential recurrence of DEI disappointments and disasters will be most satisfying to loyalists.

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