Southwest Airlines had a bad week. The fatal accident on flight #1380 left one dead and many others injured and scarred – every airline’s worst nightmare.
Yet instead of being trashed on social media, the airline was praised. Southwest was lauded for the in-air heroics of the pilot, flight crew and the immediate and direct response of its leadership. While I’m sure the airline’s actions and the real-time crisis response is worthy of praise – would we have the same reaction if this happened to United? What about Spirit Airlines?
Many in the marketing and communications world are already labeling this event as a classic case study in crisis management – get out in front of the story immediately, express sympathy, avoid excuses and take corrective action. But I think there’s a deeper story.
Consider the differences. On Thursday, United Tweeted about flying nearly 400 heroes to the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic. The first response was a consumer complaint about how they treat active military members. The day before, Southwest Airlines sent a tweet confirming the incident on Flight #1380. The first comment: praise for the response and a promise to do business with the airline in the future.
What’s going on here? We have one airline (United) making a genuine gesture for our veterans, and they get scorned, and another (Southwest) being praised following a fatal safety issue.
My takeaway: it has nothing to do with the crisis response – it’s all about how you treat your customers, day-in and day out. Southwest Airlines has built its business on putting customers first. You can see it everywhere, from the traveler-friendly baggage and flight-change policies, to the in-air experience. Even the stock symbol – LUV – screams customer love.
This commentary isn’t to say that what happened on flight #1380 is acceptable, or that the remarkable work of the in-flight crew to keep everyone else safe isn’t worthy of praise. But accidents happen. The big lesson for brands: maintaining public trust and finding empathy in the market is a lot easier when customer intimacy is baked into everything you do, and not an afterthought triggered by a crisis.
As for me, I’ve always been a Southwest fan. Incidents like this are extremely unsettling, but it won’t stop me from flying with them in the future.