Some news reports carry words like “fiasco” to describe the computer glitch that resulted in Southwest Airlines booking numerous flights for customers responding to a Facebook promotion. Short term, it was indeed a social media black eye for the airline. But its response may actually prove to be a textbook example of rapid-response crisis management. At worst, it invites comments about what it could have done better, faster.
It all started with a Facebook announcement and a standard press release that went over the wire at 1 p.m. EDT Friday afternoon: “The LUV airline is easy to LIKE! Southwest Airlines is celebrating the Three Million Fan milestone with a special discount offer and a signature ‘concept’ plane dedicated to our fans! … And while there are a million ways to celebrate, we've decided to offer our fans a special discount available today only! Fans can get 50 percent off a roundtrip Wanna Get Away Fare simply by using the promotion code: LUV2LIKE.”
By Saturday, it was clear that it all that LUV was spreading like kudzu, with customers reporting multiple charges to their credit cards and bank accounts for a single booking.
“It was an error with our system and we're taking responsibility for it," said Southwest spokeswoman Ashley Dillon. "We're working to make sure it never happens again."
The company promised in a Facebook post Saturday that it had “all hands on deck, actively working to process refunds,” MarketWatch’s Steve Gelsi reports.
“[Southwest’s] page was flooded with differing stories describing the trials, unresolved issues and even a few happy endings for customers trying to shake off the excess charges…,” according to CNN. The airline “interacted” with the commenters, “but that didn't soothe all of the complaints, and it seems that people are doing a lot of waiting.”
News organizations scrambled to provide a local angle to the story. KOB Eyewitness News 4 in Albuquerque, N.M., found two folks in its market area who had been burned, but the outcome was, in the end, a net positive.
"I booked a flight and it booked 10 trips rather than one,” Diana Griego, of Albuquerque, posted on Facebook. “I got 39 emails on it, but Southwest Airlines took care of it quickly and professionally. Well worth it!!!"
Another resident who was charged 11 times writes that she called her credit card company, who called Southwest “and it was taken care of right away.”
Not everyone was as forgiving, particularly when prodded.
Nancy Olewnick of Denver ended up with at least 35 charges on a round-tripper to Philadelphia. "How many seats are on a plane?" Olewnick asks Denver’s KUSA 9Wants To Know. "I have a whole plane if anyone wants to go. I was infuriated that a business could allow my credit card to be charged over 35 times."
"You wiped out my checking account!" a customer cited by the Los Angeles Times’s Hugo Martin posted on Facebook. "Are you going to pay my bills? Put gas in my car while I wait?"
The company said it would reimburse customers for any overdraft charges that result from an overbooking, Martin reports, and it set up (800) 435-9792 to process complaints.
A woman who was charged 20 times tells MYFoxdfw.com in Dallas-Fort Worth. "Initially, I was sympathetic. I get it. Stuff happens. Make it better," said Suzanne Worrell. But when she learned she might not get “refunded” for 10 days, her attitude changed. “Now I’m just mad,” she said.
Southwest has had a dedicated social media team for several years after discovering that there was a “portion of the customer base that wasn’t comfortable calling or emailing, but were tweeting,” Catherine Gantt, manager of customer advocacy and communications for Southwest, toldTechTarget’s Sue Hildreth in an article published last month.
“In response, Southwest developed a customer support team of social media specialists and created a Southwest Twitter feed, Facebook page and YouTube account,” Hildreth. “The social media team doesn't reply to everything but tries to keep an eye out for solvable problems and potentially inflammatory issues that require fast responses.”
While Southwest investigates what went terribly wrong with its social media promotion over the next few weeks, it will no doubt also be keeping in mind all that has gone right.
As of this 6:50 a.m. EDT morning, Southwest was displaying the following stats: “3,138,714 likes · 112,572 talking about this · 265,433 were here.” Its Dallas-Fort Worth neighbor and rival American Airlines, on the other hand, showed “374,742 likes · 21,875 talking about this · 4,443 were here.”