For passengers who are booked with Southwest Airlines this week, the much-needed conclusion to the carrier’s troubles is still several agonizing days away. Anger over the tidal wave of cancellations of Southwest Airlines flights continued to mount Thursday. Senior officials demanded action as the company issued further apologies for the crisis which is now in its eighth day of stranding or delaying hundreds of thousands of passengers.
I think Southwest is doing a poor job handling this crisis. Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan put out a two-minute video on December 27th saying he was sorry but, it didn’t feel like it came from the heart. When your airline cancels 15,700 flights and upends the lives of an untold number of customers, the apology needs to be a lot more sincere and groveling.
However, to their credit, Southwest Airlines is doing a positive thing by directly engaging with customers on social media platforms like Twitter. They are frequently apologizing directly to customers and while this gesture is small, it goes a long way because people know that they are being heard.
As a crisis communications expert, this is what I would advise Southwest Airlines to do right now.
1. Hold daily press conferences
Bob Jordan who is the face of the company or another high profile executive should be providing daily updates (the same way governors do when there is a natural disaster like a hurricane). Southwest Airlines should be a lot more proactive in media engagements answering questions.
2. Make life easier for stranded customers
I think Southwest Airlines (which took $3.7B in federal aid from 2020-21) should provide free catering and relaxation services (on site massages) to the thousands of customers stranded at their airports. I also don’t think it would be a bad idea to hire celebrities to do meet-and-greets at the airports and cheer them up.
3. Offer tons of perks for customers who stay with the airline
Southwest Airlines could offer affected flyers a number of benefits like: no-baggage fees for life, free flights, free first class ticket upgrades the next year, exorbitant amount of points added to their frequent flyer accounts, sizable discounts stores in their airports, and others. If Southwest makes the perks good enough, it should help retain customers.
4. Present a solution to their crisis
Southwest Airlines can present a comprehensive list of operational changes and reforms that they think will solve their crisis and prevent a situation like this from ever occurring again.
5. Other airlines need to immediately help Southwest
While your house is your own responsibility, if your neighbor’s house burns down and doesn’t get rebuilt, it’s going to eventually affect you. What’s happening with Southwest Airlines is a terrible PR crisis for the airline industry as a whole. Some people may never fly any carrier after seeing the videos and images of what’s currently taking place. I think all major airlines need to come together and offer Southwest help and resources to assist those most impacted by the mass cancellations.