Southwest Airlines snickered at United for a while, but then got jealous of all the attention, so they took their own foray into the social media disastersphere, denying filmmaker Kevin Smith a seat for being too fat a year ago February. Smith promptly tweeted the extra-large pants off the incident, causing a rare moment of negativity for the normally beloved carrier.
And last week, Jetstar, Qantas' low-priced South Pacific little brother, denied boarding to two handicapped guys, saying they weren't allowed on the plane without a caregiver. They were Paralympians. World travelers. They had never had an incident on a plane, but the Jetstar staff turned them away at the gate.
This is the same airline, by the way, that made Paralympic champion Kurt Fearnley check his wheelchair back in 2009 -- an act he objected to by dragging himself around Brisbane airport and onto the plane with his hands.
In 2009, the year Carroll's video launched, United posted a significant improvement over the year prior, losing just $651 million as compared to more than $5 billion in 2008. As of June 2010, when Qantas last released financial information, Jetstar was profitable, more so than the previous year; so was Southwest, which continues to win accolades as one of America's most admired companies. So maybe these incidents don't make a whit of difference to the bottom line. After all, when you're dealing with Southwest's 88 million passengers a year, there's no way to please them all.
But surely, surely, this kind of bad publicity can't be good for any of them. It erodes customer confidence and loyalty. It builds resentment. It gets talked about, shared over coffee, written about by online pundits. Even if we continue to fly the carrier, it creates an environment on the verge of the negative tip: the slightest nudge will send us running to the competition.
Luckily, if you live down under as I do, the competition rocks. The Kiwi national carrier is Air New Zealand, easily as beloved as Southwest. They've taken customer service to an art form and are a case study in effective use of corporate social media. In addition to their regular Twitter accounts, they've got the @airpointsfairy Twitter account, who regularly grants wishes to followers. They've turned their in-flight safety videos into viral commercials; the latest, most awesome one stars Richard Simmons and has more than TWO MILLION views. Two million. Of a safety video.
If I have no choice, I'll fly United, and I probably won't be happy about it. But I delight in Air New Zealand. And I can't help but believe that, long-term, that kind of customer relationship is going to serve the first company poorly and the latter well.
Do you believe there's no such thing as bad publicity? Have an airline horror story to share? Touch base on Twitter or in the comments.