Southwest Airlines apology: poor, late, and insensitive

Thousands of travelers with Southwest Airlines reservations are stranded and unable to get where they are going (or to return home). While weather delays initially caused this problem, Southwest’s own inadequate systems made recovery slow and infuriating. It took many days for the company to finally position itself to make things right. Let’s take a look at what they did wrong.

First off: this is Southwest’s fault

Nobody controls the weather. But other airlines got back on track in a day or two after winter storms. Why was the problem at Southwest so intractable, leading it to eventually cancel 60% of its flights, or 13,000 flights in total? Because its internal systems are out-of-date and dependent on phone calls.

According to The Wall Street Journal:

When Southwest Airlines reassigns crews after flight disruptions, it typically relies on a system called SkySolver. This Christmas, SkySolver not only didn’t solve much, it also helped create the worst industry meltdown in recent memory.

Airline executives and labor leaders point to inadequate technology systems, in particular SkySolver, as one reason why a brutal winter storm turned into a debacle. SkySolver was overwhelmed by the scale of the task of sorting out which pilots and flight attendants could work which flights, Southwest executives said. Crew schedulers instead had to comb through records by hand.

Basically, crews and planes were out of place due to storm-based cancellations, and Southwest’s systems assume that planes and crews will be where they were supposed to be. The exceptions get handled and rescheduled by phone calls. Flight attendants and pilots were unable to get through, and in many cases they were stranded and couldn’t even get authorization to check into hotel rooms.

Basically, Southwest had to reboot itself by flying planes and crews to where they were supposed to be. The fix to an airline problem should be better than basically unplugging the whole airline and plugging it in again. Southwest gambled that its outdated technology could handle a few exceptions, and after a blizzard or two this holiday season, found itself on the wrong end of that bet.

Southwest’s communication was poor

Today, five days after the problems began, Southwest’s web site looks like this:

Southwest has wisely dedicated the top part of the site to tools that help people reschedule flights or get refunds. But everything below “Travel Advisory” is business as usual. I doubt very many people right now are contemplating joining Rapid Rewards, signing up for a Southwest Visa credit card, or taking advantage of special vacation, car rental, or hotel offers. If I were stranded somewhere after waiting on hold for hours, being told I’d need to wait days to get home, or searching in vain for a lost bag, this would annoy the crap out of me.

Don’t market in a crisis. It annoys your customers.

The statement from Southwest’s CEO is inadequate

Southwest’s CEO Bob Jordan finally posted a video statement on Tuesday. Here’s how it starts:

I want everyone who is dealing with the problems we’ve been facing, whether you haven’t been able to get to where you need to go or you’re one of our heroic Employees caught up in a massive effort to stabilize the airline, to know is that we’re doing everything we can to return to a normal operation.

And please also hear that I’m truly sorry.

Here’s why this giant puzzle is taking us several days to solve. Southwest is the largest carrier in the country, not only because of our value and our values, but because we build our flight schedule around communities, not hubs. So, we’re the largest airline in 23 of the top 25 travel markets in the U.S.

Cities where large numbers of scheduled flights simultaneously froze as record bitter cold brought challenges for all airlines.

Here’s a communications tip: when your airline is facing the most massive reputational and customer crisis in decades, don’t start by making excuses. If I am to believe every news article about the meltdown and tweets from actual employees, the problem is not that it is “a giant puzzle” — it’s that Southwest underinvested in technology and was unprepared.

Finally, yesterday, Southwest Chief Commercial Officer Ryan Green posted a message that included a more effective apology along with specific instructions on how travelers can get rerouted flights, refunds, and reimbursement for travel expenses.

But unlike the CEO’s message, there’s no transcript on this one, and therefore no links to resources.

If you’re stuck and reading this, here’s the page with resources to take care of your problems. And I’m sorry this happened to you.

A failure to prepare

This is an object lesson.

Your business needs a crisis communication plan. Read Melissa Agnes’ book Crisis Ready, which is the definitive book on the topic. Every business needs to invest in systems that will mitigate problems in the event of a disaster like this.

The message of Melissa’s book is that the time to prepare and put a plan in place is not during the crisis, but well before. Then when stuff goes wrong, everyone just follows the plan, instead of attempting to make up strategies on the fly.

If Southwest had done that, their web site wouldn’t still be telling you to sign up for credit cards, their CEO would not be failing to fully apologize for the inadequate systems for dealing with storms, and their CCO’s message would have a transcript and links under it.

Prepare now. Or fail later. Your choice.

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  1. There is a common through-line in many corportate (and some government) ‘unfortunate circumstances’. Southwest’s catastrophy is the outcome of conscious choices over a long period to reward executives and shareholders, at the expense of systems and infrastructure, customer service and safety, and employees (think also of PG&E, or Flint Michigan). What is the solution?

    1. Your comment is spot on. “conscious choices” is key; we are truly surprised sometimes, but mostly we deal with just poor decision-making plus bad luck.

  2. We had Hawaiian Airlines have a similar unforced error on our return trip from Hawaii this month. They delayed the flight in and then out and then claimed ignorance that the First Officer was going to exceed her hours. That cost us another 4 hours in an airport largely closed. We arrived back in Vegas just in time for a nap before getting one of us on the next flight. Dinner and a relaxing evening became a breakfast-time ride-share.

    Not a system issue (that we know of), but the only issues normal people care about are those impacting them directly. Entirely the airline’s fault with no effective plan to deal with the consequences in a timely fashion.

    Southwest boldly stated that technology was the issue and that the top was entirely responsible for missing the necessary updates and upgrades. That was refreshing, but likely to cost those folks their jobs, so do not expect too many of those announcements.

    A few decades ago, I was fortunate enough to be on the first plane stopped in Detroit when the East Coast had a blizzard. We were lucky enough to camp in an airport hotel until flights opened up and normalized a few days later. I was in shorts from a tropical workplace and had to buy airport clothes to survive the freezing temperatures of Detroit. I highly recommend the Ford museum.

    I love preparing and highly recommend it, but it cannot cover all bases or crises. It could provide you with the clue that you are missing something that could avert the crisis. That would be even better than following a plan.