Southwest Airlines May Compound Crisis With CEO Snub of Congress

More than a month after a network failure spurred the cancellation of nearly 17,000 Southwest Airlines holiday flights, the carrier’s planes are back in the air flying high. But the CEO’s absence from this week’s congressional review of the aviation meltdown may be enough to ground the airline’s flagging reputation.

The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee peppered Southwest Airlines COO Andrew Watterson with sharp questions in an hours-long, tense interrogation. To his credit, Watterson remained composed, respectful and apologetic in the face of difficult circumstances and pointed questioning. However, anyone who viewed the proceedings had to wonder: where was CEO Bob Jordan, and why did he allow Watterson to take the hit in his stead?

Having a no-show CEO usually looks bad. And in the wake of such a monumental disaster, Jordan’s absence will likely prompt more questions than it will answer.

Words Ring Hollow with CEO's Absence

Actions often speak louder than works in crisis management. For Southwest Airlines, its badly-tarnished reputation would benefit from some concrete steps to rectify the situation that outraged thousands. Pledges to improve tend to ring hollow.

In the days following the weather-induced meltdown, Southwest tried to appear contrite, with the airline issuing multiple apologies for stranding thousands and ruining countless families’ holidays.

“There are a lot of reasons that this happened, but it's on me at the end of the day," Jordan told Reuters in an interview. "It's on me to not let this happen again and to rebuild trust with our employees and rebuild trust with our customers, and we will do exactly that."

It is hard to understand why a CEO would credibly claim full responsibility for an issue, and then decline the opportunity to go before America’s elected representatives seeking accountability. His glaring absence on undoubtedly made a bad situation worse.

Many would think that Jordan would have been thrilled at the opportunity to provide valuable insights and showcase his unflappable dedication to making things right. Instead, Southwest told Reuters, “Unfortunately, the date that was selected for the hearing next week overlapped a previous commitment for Bob.”

In reality, Southwest probably decided to avoid the public spectacle of its chief executive facing withering questioning from lawmakers all too eager to take him to task with cameras capturing every barb. Instead, he let his colleague take the heat.

Snub Becomes the Story

If Southwest made strides since its disastrous December, then Jordan should have jumped at the chance to tell the world about the technological improvements that are allegedly in progress to protect against future meltdowns. Were he concerned about lacking technical expertise to answer detailed questions, then he could have prepared extensively for his testimony or brought along technical experts for the hearing.

Southwest’s CEO’s decision to snub Congress became a story in itself ,and will be unlikely to provide much lift for the carrier’s already-shaky reputation.

Overall, the airline has provided few details about what it has done to right its operations. Jordan implied in a video posted to the company website last year that the cancellations disaster was a rare event.

“The tools we use to recover from disruption serve us well 99 percent of the time,” Jordan said in the video, “but clearly we need to double down on our already existing plans to upgrade systems for these extreme circumstances.”

Questions About Southwest Remain

Could it happen again? It’s a question that he would likely have faced on the Hill. Jordan could have used the opportunity to clear the air and begin the hard work of restoring consumer confidence.

Since the meltdown, numerous reports have emerged suggesting that the airline has knowingly operated for years with outdated technology to manage customer reservations and assign pilots and attendants to flights. A willingness to respond to questions before Congress would have done a lot for the carrier’s reputation.

Unfortunately, much was left to speculation, with the carrier’s second-in-command taking the front seat. The CEO ignored three basic tenets of crisis control: admit your mistakes, explain what you will do to correct the problem, and always tell the truth.

Other black eyes plaguing the airline include the following:

  • Shareholders filed a class action lawsuit in Texas courts last month for those who have owned or purchased stock in the passenger airline since 2020. The lawsuit claims that the airline ignored serious risks associated with its outdated technology, support systems and infrastructure considered critical to the performance reliability and security of airline operations.
  • The FAA also blamed Southwest’s system failure on outdated technology.
  • The U.S. Department of Transportation is investigating claims that Southwest knowingly deceived travelers by scheduling more flights than the airline could handle could spell a long-term reputational struggle for the airline.

Admitting to your mistakes and explaining how you are going to prevent their recurrence are two of the foundational building blocks for successful crisis management and reputation repair. So is showing up when the American people and their elected officials demand answers. By going a different route, Southwest has done much to compound and prolong its pain. Southwest Airlines should brace for further turbulence and prepare for a rough landing.

Evan Nierman is the Founder and CEO of crisis PR firm Red Banyan