Southwest Airlines: Cancel or #Canceled?

Written by Emma Novak, Account Manager

Southwest Airlines prides itself on three values – efficiency, discipline, and excellence – to fulfill its purpose: connecting people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and affordable air travel.

During the 2022 holiday season, Southwest compromised its values and purpose of reliability, tarnishing the brand after its technology and communications failed. How did Southwest get it so wrong? How could Southwest have better communicated with its customers during this crisis? Southwest’s response or lack of response will be studied in PR classrooms for many years to come

Setting the Scene

On December 22, 2022, the U.S. encountered a blustery winter storm. In the Pacific Northwest, ice covered city streets. Heavy snowfall blanketed the Midwest and an Arctic blast rocked the Southeast, while the “blizzard of the century” delivered four feet of snow to Buffalo, NY.

U.S. airlines were informed of these weather patterns well before they hit and attempted to warn holiday travelers. By December 20th, U.S. airlines had issued varying winter weather waivers, and Southwest shared a travel advisory on its website and Twitter.

The delays began to pile up, and a couple days later on December 22nd, Southwest canceled 15% of its flights, juxtaposed with 5% of American Airlines’ flights, another major U.S. airline. On December 23rd, Southwest canceled 30% of its flights, whereas American Airlines canceled 25% of its own. That same day, Southwest’s booking system crashed, and dominoes began to topple. Here is what happened with Southwest in the coming days compared to American Airlines:

Dec. 24 – Southwest: 35% cancellations; American: 11%

Dec. 25 – Southwest: 33% cancellations; American: 1%

Dec. 26 – Southwest: 66% cancellations; American: 1%

Dec. 27 – Southwest: 72% cancellations; American: 2%

While all other domestic airlines returned to normal operations following the winter storm, Southwest’s recovery faltered. Fliers were stranded without luggage in unfamiliar cities, and Southwest leadership failed to communicate with both employees and customers. One financial analyst wrote that Southwest’s breakdown was, “the largest and most costly operational meltdown that any single U.S. airline had ever experienced.”

Analysts claimed Southwest’s unique “point-to-point” model severely damped the airline’s ability to operate when cities were impacted by severe weather. During this crisis, Southwest flight crews were unable to make it to their destinations, setting off a domino effect of flight cancellations and crippling Southwest’s outdated technology. Following the crisis, a leader of the Southwest Pilots Association deemed the airline, “woefully unprepared in terms of IT.”

Mitigating a Crisis

Between December 22nd and December 30th, Southwest canceled over 15,000 flights.

Customers were dissatisfied and disillusioned with Southwest’s response to the crisis. A company’s post-crisis outcome and brand image is largely determined by the brand’s handling of a crisis. Clear communication and transparency with customers and employees are critical components of crisis response to ensure customers don’t feel abandoned.

A company’s social media is one of the quickest ways to communicate information to customers, but Southwest failed to utilize its Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram handles between December 22nd and 25th. The brand posted updates to its website, but a lack of clear communication on its social media platforms led to high call and social inquiry volumes with long wait times.

Customers waited on the phone for hours to face “call failed” notifications or speak with overwhelmed representatives, left in the dark by corporate leadership. If Southwest had been quicker to communicate its cancellations and resulting ‘meltdown,’ its PR crisis likely could have been mitigated.

Forced Apologies

It wasn’t until five days later, on December 27th, that Southwest CEO Bob Jordan made a statement about what happened. In times like this, customers need to hear updates and an apology from the CEO immediately.

Instead, Mr. Jordan started the video message with the aim to explain why the crisis occurred. He then paused and said in a monotone voice, “please also hear that I’m truly sorry.” Instead, Mr. Jordan should have started his video with an apology for what occurred. Since the CEO spoke in a monotone and didn’t display emotion, the apology felt coerced and unempathetic.

Following this forced apology, Mr. Jordan continued to explain the crisis without offering a true solution for Southwest customers to arrive at their destinations quickly and affordably. “We’re optimistic to be back on track before next week,” Jordan said, giving little guidance on what customers should do in the meantime besides wait.

Mr. Jordan didn’t explain how he would compensate customers for their lost flights that upended their travel plans. This should have been done immediately, and not a week later.

It wasn’t until January 3rd that Southwest emailed its impacted customers with an offer of 25,000 gifted airline points, valued at $300, and a heartfelt apology to each traveler impacted by Southwest-related events occurring between December 24th and January 2nd. The email also promised incidental expense reimbursement refunds for canceled flights. Eventually, Southwest did the right thing, but it was too late – more than one week after the initial systems meltdown. Customers had already given up on the airline.

These 25,000 points and standard PR apology were not an adequate solution for Southwest customers who slept on airport floors, missed time with loved ones, or maxed out credit cards to find alternate transportation.

Lessons Learned

At the end of its January 5th release, Southwest said, “The lessons of the final week of 2022, and the Heart of our People for serving our Customers and each other, will guide a multi-faceted plan to win back trust and repair relationships with those who count on Southwest to come through.”

This statement did not offer an indication as to what “lessons” Southwest had learned, nor did Southwest outline how they will prevent this from occurring in the future.  Customers had already lost faith in the company because:

  • Southwest did not communicate with customers through its social media channels.
  • Southwest failed to quickly provide information on customer compensation.
  • The Southwest CEO issued a forced apology in a statement issued five days too late, rather than immediately.

Amid crisis, companies must respond immediately with the CEO out front-and-center to apologize. By being fully transparent, Southwest and other companies recovering from a crisis will halt further fallout and gain back the trust of its current customers.

Next time a mirroring crisis occurs, brands would do well to remember:

  • Frequently and thoughtfully utilize corporate social media channels.
  • Ensure company leadership and spokespersons are prepared to speak via broadcast.
  • Empathize and truly apologize before setting the record straight.
  • Provide clarity on a brand’s next amends to alleviate customer concerns.

Southwest hurt its customer base during this crisis, but it didn’t scare them away forever. Thousands of customers will board a Southwest flight next month using their newly gifted points, but they’ll be wary to see how the brand improves.