Southwest Airlines was ready when the worst-case scenario became reality

We’re hard-wired to hope bad news goes away. And when that hope is dashed, as it so often is, we hope that the fewest number of people possible find out about our bad news. So, imagine your bad news being broadcast live to potentially millions of people. That’s what Southwest Airlines experienced in 2018. It gets my vote for most effective crisis communications and showed why planning for crises is essential. 

On April 17, 2018, on Southwest Airlines Flight 1380, an engine ruptured. Shrapnel broke a window and passenger Jennifer Riordan died after being sucked headfirst into that opening. Almost immediately, the crisis went public. As the New York Times reported, “ … passengers were scrambling to put on oxygen masks and buy internet access so they could send a last message to their children and families.”

Southwest Airlines was facing the mother of all airline crises. Most important, of course, the plane was landed in Philadelphia by Southwest pilot Tammie Jo Shults, one of the U.S. Navy’s first female pilots and an immediate hero. 

Still, Southwest had to deal with a passenger death amid the torrent of photos, videos, tweets and texts from passengers going viral. The airline used that information. 

“The photos, video and tweets also kept the airline better-informed about what was happening,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “Like most airlines, Southwest has a social media listening team that fed real-time information to executives as the accident developed.”

Southwest’s crisis response kicked into high gear. 

  •   CEO Gary Kelly quickly issued a statement that put the emphasis on empathy, reading in part: “This is a sad day, and on behalf of the entire Southwest family, I want to extend my deepest sympathies for the family, and the loved ones of our deceased customer. … We will do all that we can to support them during this difficult time and the difficult days ahead.”
  •   The airline’s website banner and Twitter profile image changed from the signature red, yellow and blue heart symbol to a gray, broken heart.
  •   The marketing of deals and promotional messages via Twitter, emails and commercials stopped.
  •   All Flight 1380 passengers were given $5,000, a credit of $1,000 toward Southwest airfare and transportation to their destination out of Philadelphia.

The accident still had a $100 million impact on revenue, according to media reports, and eight of the passengers sued the airline. But by early June, in a poll of 2,000 American adults conducted by YouGov, nearly half said they had a positive view of Southwest — the best showing of any U.S. airline. The company had survived the crisis with its reputation intact. How?

Southwest had a detailed crisis communications plan. Well-done plans include everything from suggested messages to instructions for effective social media use.

You may not have a social media listening team, or some of Southwest Airline’s other resources. Chances are, however, your company is going to face a crisis at some point. Do yourself, your team and your business a favor. Face it with a plan.

Thomas Fladung is vice president at Hennes Communications