Southwest Airlines, Real-Time PR, and a Failure to Communicate: Two Mini-Case Studies

Alan Belniakbusiness, Social Media6 Comments

Recently, I flew Southwest Airlines from the south back to the northeast (US), where I live.  The flight was on August  1, and I was on the second of two legs, in Baltimore/Washington DC.  I heard of some thunder in the northeast, and was wondering if my flight was going to get cancelled.  We boarded the plane, taxied out, and then sat… and sat…. and sat.  After several delays and “waiting to hear”, my flight was cancelled.  I was disappointed, but ultimately understood.  Southwest can change the weather.

However, seven flights were cancelled in all, heading into the Northeast.  The BWI airport was bustling with activity –  chiefly Southwest customers, with me and my family among them, scrambling to decide what to do.


Real-Time PR

As my friend David Meerman Scott discusses at length in his book and his talks, real-time is where it’s at today.  This could mean in terms of beating another to a story, being first with information, or heading off a crisis.  In this instance, I believe it was damage control.  My flight was set to depart Baltimore at 5:55p ET on August 1.  As you read above, that didn’t go off as planned.  But it wasn’t for just one flight.  Single flights get cancelled all the time.  It was for seven flights.  That’s 137 seats each plane – almost 1,000 people displaced.  Southwest headed off the backlash by responding quickly.  By 4:30p the next day – less than 23 hours after my flight was set to take off, and even less time after it was cancelled – Southwest issued (via email) an apology to its affected customers, and the promise of a soon-to-be-delivered voucher for the inconvenience.  This will surely set Southwest back some revenue, and something I’m sure they plan for every fiscal year.  But the fact that they reacted fast, in this age of real-time media, says a lot.  I did a quick Google search for Southwest flight cancellations on August 1, and didn’t see a lot of press about it.  Not being an aviation aficionado, seven cancelled flights might not be a story that garners a lot of press.  But what does get a lot of press are upset customers who have to sit on runways for long periods of time, with poor service (to be fair, the attitude has changed) from the provider.


So… Kudos to Southwest for reacting within a calendar day to apologize to its customers.  The voucher is icing on the cake.  I wasn’t expecting one or asking for one, but I’ll take it.


A Failure to Communicate

Strother Martin in Cool Hand LukeWhat irked me was the lack of communication from southwest to its customers.  The flight attendants told us that there’d be a delay.  Then they tried to tell us something else over an enormously loud din on the plane, with several people shouting “we can’t hear you!” .  Once the pilot alerted us of the cancellation, we all spilled into the airport, trying to figure out what to do next.  Lines at the gates of the remaining flights were 200+ people long.  I had questions about my bags, other flights, re-ticketing, re-ticketing fees, hotels for an overnight stay, …  But there was no one to ask.  I understand the need to staff ticketing booths, but having a person or two to just provide information would have been helpful.  Surely I wasn’t the only person asking this.  Southwest failed to use Twitter as a viable communication mechanism – notice no tweets sent about this event in the August 1 time frame (their other account, @southwest, isn’t even used, despite 1860 people following it! The ‘delay’ mentioned below references finding a power plug in an unrelated airport).  Southwest Airlines Twitter activity - August 1, 2011I ended up putting me and my family into a hotel room on my own accord.  I had the wherewithal to call while I was person 190 in a 200+ person and growing line.  Once we got our flights re-ticketed (thanks to a family member at home, online, doing the work for us), we headed to see if we could get our luggage.  This took talking to three people to figure out where and what (no avail – bags were already en route).  When we checked into the hotel, we overheard a desk clerk say that they, among others in the area, were sold out for the night.  The next morning, I anecdotally heard two different people say that they slept in the airport.  When I called today to inquire about hotel re-imbursement, I was told that I had to book my hotel with the baggage person to ensure that it get addressed properly.  Which person?  Where and when and how would I have learned that?  Why, when I spoke with a baggage person (and mentioned that I was staying in a hotel) did he not offer to assist me with any hotel reservation?


In the end, we got a room, and we got re-ticketed for a flight the next day.  I’m in the process of seeking re-imbursement for the hotel room from Southwest (I’ll even waive the voucher; I’m not trying to be greedy!) , and so far the conversations I’ve had have been positive.  No one has promised anything, but no one has been rude.


Think of what could have been averted if Southwest Airlines was a little more forthcoming with information, whether it be on Twitter, over a PA, or staffing an information-only booth right in the thick of it at the BWI airport.  It would have likely alleviated a lot of stress from several passengers.


image sources: ; screen captures


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