Southwest Airlines (SWA) is facing the mother of airline crises and its reputation is at stake.
Can the airline win back passengers’ trust, given that the latest meltdown was the result of a culmination of problems building for years?
For example, some SWA passengers remember October 2021, when the carrier canceled more than 2,000 flights. It blamed bad weather in Florida, air traffic control issues and staffing shortages. At the time, Southwest assured customers it would solve those problems.
Still, this latest collapse had SWA sending mixed messages about the situation’s root cause.
Given that other major airlines did not experience the same issues late last month, the problem seems bigger than the severe winter storm.
A Narrative, Please
As is often the case during a PR crisis, in the absence of clear, prompt communication from company leaders, someone else will supply a narrative. In this case, an explanation of the airline’s failure came from a union leader. Worse, the union is locked in negotiations with the airline.
Captain Michael Santoro, VP of the Southwest Airlines Pilot Association, blamed airline leadership Dec. 27. “The storm that hit last week was the catalyst…but what went wrong is that our infrastructure for our scheduling software is vastly outdated. It can’t handle the number of pilots and flight attendants that we have in the system with our complex route network.”
It was a theme the union repeated on TV news shows and in a lengthy Dec. 31 letter. The union’s missive blasted Southwest’s leadership, calling it “a headquarters-centric cult” that’s destroyed “the most stable and profitable airline in history.” It cited 15 years of operational meltdowns that culminated with last month’s disaster.
Despite a loyal customer base, SWA seems to have ignored a golden rule of crisis management: crisis responses are prepared long before a disaster occurs.
Prepared or Not?
In the latest crisis, SWA was caught flat-footed. It seemed ill-prepared, failed to set the right tone and didn’t put the right people out front to address issues promptly.
For Southwest, regaining customer trust will require more than a sincere apology, empathy and compensation for passengers. While it cannot control how customers perceive its message, Southwest must get in front of underlying issues to win trust.
As the airline canceled more than 13,000 flights since Dec. 22, CEO Bob Jordan immediately apologized, telling Good Morning America Dec. 30, “ I am extremely sorry. There’s just no way to almost apologize enough.”
On Jan. 3, Jordan attempted to acknowledge what went wrong and take responsibility. “We’ll move forward with lessons learned here, as we always do. We have plans to invest in tools and technology and processes, but there will be immediate work to understand what happened,” he told employees.
SWA issued similar statements after the 2021 self-created crisis. This historical record of system failures may push loyal customers, particularly business travelers concerned about being on time, to other carriers.
Recovering fully from the self-inflicted reputation harm will be a challenge. Unlike other airline reputation hits, i.e. United’s David Dao incident, Southwest’s fiasco touched countless loyal passengers who’ve vowed they’ll never fly the airline again.
With potential action from the U.S. Department of Transportation and congressional hearings looming, if Jordan hopes to win back customers' trust, he must do more than offer 25,000 reward points to people whose flights were canceled. He must communicate with all customers, employees and the media and explain what led to the operational meltdown during the busy holiday travel season.
Moreover, the beleaguered airline must tell stakeholders clearly the steps it’s taking to ensure this does not recur and provide a timeframe for upgrading its technology, which contributed heavily to the chaos.
In addition to compensating passengers, the airline should create incentives for customers, creating continued loyalty.
While Southwest struggles to make things right with customers, subsequent issues will garner coverage. With thousands of news stories and social media posts that chronicled cancelled flights, difficulties reaching customer service and the baggage debacle, it will take years for Southwest to recover fully.
The next big winter storm will determine whether passengers can trust the airline.
Eric W. Rose is a partner at EKA