Experts debate if Southwest Airlines can recover customers' trust after holiday nightmare

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Friday, December 30, 2022
Southwest mess snowballs with over 15,000 flights canceled nationwide
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As the airline looks to fix its cancellation problem, crisis management experts explain how the company can weather the storm, but it must act quickly.

As Southwest looks to fix its cancellation problem, crisis management experts explain how the company can weather the storm, but it must act quickly.

FEDERAL TRANSPORTATION LEADERS KEEP THE PRESSURE ON SOUTHWEST

As Southwest's cascade of cancellations continues, stern words keep coming their way.

"This is not an acceptable level of service," U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said. "They need to fix it. They have pledged to me they'll go above and beyond what is required of them, and we will be holding them accountable to do just that."

Federal transportation leaders said Southwest needs to not just fix the issue. "They need to be covering the cost of a hotel, the cost of food, and ground transportation," Buttigieg explained.

Southwest said it's doing that, and created a website where can learn how to get a refund, or reimbursed. As to how this happened, federal leaders say it was three issues, poor staffing, a different business model, and outdated software.

"We'll be taking a deeper look as time goes on, but those three factors appear to be the major reason why their system was unable to absorb this weather event," Buttigieg said.

The weather impacted others, but their cancellations are at four percent Wednesday. With Southwest, it's more than half.

TRAVEL EXPERTS WONDER WHAT THIS COULD MEAN FOR THE FUTURE OF THE AVIATION INDUSTRY

With federal leaders investigating what happened with Southwest, and other politicians raising concerns, Gary Leff, who runs viewfromthewing.com, wonders what this could mean for airlines.

"Could we see legislation? Sure," Leff asked. "It's not clear what legislation is going to fix that."

To fix this, Southwest said it needs to look at upgrading its software that reassigns pilots and flight attendants. Travel experts believe this situation will accelerate those efforts. But they say until it's fixed, Southwest needs to get planes flying again. "The Southwest CEO would be on TV on every show all the time because this is incredibly frustrating, and passengers have had holidays ruined," Leff said.

'NOT QUICK ENOUGH': CRISIS MANAGEMENT EXPERTS BREAKDOWN HOW SOUTHWEST HAS HANDLED THE SITUATION

Southwest is doing what it can to resolve its avalanche of cancellations. The airline hopes to be back by the end of the week.

"I'm truly sorry," Southwest CEO Bob Jordan said.

"We have some real work to do in making this right," Jordan said. "For now, I want you to know we're committed to that."

However, crisis management experts say it's an apology that came too late.

"They weren't quick enough to get out in front of this and realize they have a major system-wide problem on their hands that was going to generate the kind of customer dissatisfaction and blowback that there's been," Red Banyan Senior Vice President Dave Quast explained.

Quast works with companies in crisis. He said Southwest needs to focus on making sure customers receive money.

"Consumers are actually surprisingly forgiving over time to companies that make mistakes and try to fix them, but it's very obvious as well when things are done in good faith and when they're not," Quast said.

Experts say handling a crisis is all about speed, evaluation, and mobilizing. He said the airline admitting its scheduling software needs to be upgraded is a good step and could benefit them. "It would actually be an excellent opportunity for Southwest to market the steps it's taking to become a better airline," Quast explained.

WILL SOUTHWEST'S BRAND BE ABLE TO SURVIVE THIS MELTDOWN?

The Department of Transportation said it's investigating how this happened. Leaders also plan to make sure the airline issues refunds. If it does and fixes the software issue, experts believe Southwest will rebound.

"If they move quickly, even though they didn't move quickly enough, to begin with, this is probably a storm they can weather," Quast said. "I think people who are Southwest fans will be able to continue to enjoy the airline."

Restoring trust can start this week with not just refunds, but getting cancellations under control.

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RELATED: As Southwest flight cancellations continue, Buttigieg vows to hold airline accountable