Has Southwest Set New Course In Crises Management?

I got the sense that, as is the case with a lot of what it does, there was something slightly different about the way Southwest Airlines was handling the crisis of a tear in the cabin roof of one of its 737s last weekend. You don't get to be consistently ranked near the top of Fortune's list of the "Most Admired Companies" by being run of the mill, after all. Turns out, there was.

According to a piece by Timothy W. Martin, Andy Pasztor and Peter Sanders in the Wall Street Journal this morning, its decision to cancel hundreds of flights and delay thousands of others "could set a new model for such events in the industry."

The story follows the crisis through the eyes of Southwest maintenance and engineering chief Brian Hirshman and finds a "break-down of the system that Boeing, government regulators and airlines use to keep aging planes safe, leaving the aircraft maker stymied and regulators unsure of what to do."



Hirshman was pivotal in the quick recommendation that Southwest ground its 737 fleet, canceling more than 620 flights and delaying 2,700 others -- an assessment that CEO Gary Kelly quickly agreed with. Besides seemingly being the right thing to do, it "allowed the carrier to allay passenger concerns and made it better able to adhere to its aggressive inspection timeline with more control over its own destiny," according to government and industry safety experts interviewed by the Journal reporters.

But some outsiders also point out that Southwest may not have had much of a choice. "This time, they simply had to do what they ended up doing," says Daniel Rose, a lawyer who represented passengers who settled with Southwest as a result of a fuselage break two years ago.

The incident probably won't derail Southwest's long-term plans to appeal more to business travelers who may care about what kind of airplane they fly, Tim Winship, publisher of frequentflyer.com, tells msnbc.com senior writer Allison Linn. "But in the short term, the delays associated with inspecting the airline's planes could cause business travelers to shy away from booking flights," she writes.

Indeed, not everyone is assuaged by the airline's rapid response, as can be expected in a situation fraught with the primal fear of falling. (Where was is that I read recently that one of the most deep-rooted fears of our not-so-evolved-after-all species is that of falling out of a tree?)

Steve Scauzillo, the opinion pages editor of the Pasadena Star-News, writes that he is dubious about trusting Southwest Airlines with his precious cargo -- two college-age sons -- anymore and is "thinking of crossing it off my corporate villagers list."

When Scauzillo heard about the five-foot hole the size of a briefcase in the Southwest airliner's roof, his first reaction was to ask himself if it was taking its slogan -- "You are now free to move about the country" -- too literally. "Yeah, sucked through a hole in the ceiling," he writes. (Frankly, as one guy all-too-frequently on deadline himself, sounds to me like his first reaction was "I've got a hook for a column.")

Scauzillo concludes with the observation that the latest Southwest commercial shows a guy being chased through an airport by a ball of red tape in an effort to distinguish its Rapid Rewards program. "Hey, I know how Southwest can repair its image," he writes. "If it makes that a ball of duct tape instead of red tape, and supply some to the crew, it may come in handy. Or better, give them to the passengers."

You never know what's going to happen in the air, which is the main reason why you'll never see an airline create an advertising or marketing plan around its safety record, Linda Loyd reports in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Airlines do not jinx themselves -- or remind the public -- by hinting that being aloft poses some risk. Instead, they brag about on-time performance, baggage handling, new onboard offerings, and customer service," she writes. That's despite the fact that the industry, as a whole, has a "great safety record," as one insider points out.

"If you have to convince somebody that you are safe, it's already bottom of the ninth and two strikes and two outs," says Robert Mann, aviation consultant with R.W. Mann & Co. "It isn't a good thing to talk about safety because it raises the issue to a level that we would prefer it not to be, either as customers and certainly as airlines."

1 comment about "Has Southwest Set New Course In Crises Management? ".
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  1. Keith Trivitt from MediaWhiz, April 8, 2011 at 8:19 a.m.

    Good assessment, Thom, of the strong and most successful approach Southwest has taken thus far in terms of its response to this latest crisis. Above all, I've noticed that Southwest has not tried to pass the blame on others (as BP so infamously did), but has accepted responsibility, immediately took actions to try to assess not only the severity of this specific incident but whether it could happen on any of its other planes, and taken steps to ensure it does not happen again, or at the very least, the company is well prepared if a crisis of this magnitude arises again.

    At the end of the day, I think most people who fly realize that doing so does come with some risks. But for any company wishing to retain strong brand equity, such as Southwest has, they would be wise to follow its lead by quickly and assertively taking responsibility for what has happened on its watch.

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