The Southwest Airlines Debacle Reveals the Importance of the Customer Experience

Some people dealing with the Southwest Airlines crisis

When it comes to specific airlines, travelers tend to have very particular opinions. Speak to any of them, and each will have one they love and at least one they hate. Certainly, there may be some general trends in terms of which airlines fall into one category or the other. Ultimately, what it boils down to is the airline customer experience. For every good experience, airlines earn a bit of credit into their credibility account. But all it takes is one horrific encounter with an airline, and suddenly, the account’s balance becomes negative. And it appears that this is what is happening with the Southwest Airlines crisis.

Some people dealing with the Southwest Airlines crisis and the crowds
As the Southwest Airlines crisis showed, prioritizing customer experience is essential for good business.

A few years ago, it would have been difficult to believe Southwest Airlines would be the target of customer ire. In fact, as far as airlines go, they were among the most beloved when it came to their passengers. Southwest enjoyed incredible loyalty among its clientele, and much of this had to do with airline customer experience. Point-to-point flights and faster turnarounds appealed to customers as did the airlines endearing sense of humor. But based on the current Southwest Airlines crisis, it appears the company forgot what earned them such accolades. Weather may have been the root cause of this recent catastrophe. But the failure to ensure the customer satisfaction is ultimately what has many Southwest loyalists considering other options.

(Read this Bold story for a breakdown of the top ten funniest brands, and how they make humor work for them.)

“[Southwest Airlines has] got the best reputation for customer service and management agility. They’re usually pretty good at responding to crises.” – Richard Aboulafia, Airlines Analyst

A Christmas to Forget for Many

The date was 12/22/22, the Wednesday before Christmas, when winter weather reared its ugly head. In this regard, all airlines were affected, and many had to cancel flights. But in terms of Southwest Airlines, it led the list with roughly 2,500 flights shut down. In fact, the next closest airline, which was SkyWest, had only 77 cancellations. As a result of Southwest’s situation, nearly a million passengers were left stranded at the airport. Thousands also had their luggage dispersed in airports abroad, many with gifts and some with medications. As far as airline customer experience goes, the Southwest Airlines crisis presented the worst for many. Best-made holiday plans rapidly deteriorated along with their faith in Southwest. It’s clear customer satisfaction for Southwest is at an all-time low.

Not to make excuses, but the winter storms did impact two of Southwest’s most travelled airports the worst. Both Chicago Midway and Denver International Airport took major hits as storms passed through. But other airlines with a strong presence in these locations recovered much faster than Southwest. The reason? One of the biggest reasons relates to a feature that often makes Southwest appealing to many customers. Instead of operating on a hub-and-spoke structure like other airlines, Southwest prefers point-to-point strategies. In normal times, this is quite convenient for customers, allowing shorter flight times and transfers. But when weather affects one of these “points,” there are limited solutions to address cancellations. This played a large role in the Southwest Airlines crisis reversing their normally positive airline customer experience.

A bunch of cancellations during the Southwest Airlines crisis
Nothing says “bad customer experience” like cancelling all flights.

“USDOT is concerned by Southwest’s unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays & reports of lack of prompt customer service. The Department will examine whether cancellations were controllable and if Southwest is complying with its customer service plan.” – U.S. Department of Transportation

Failure to Invest in Customer Experience

The point-to-point approach to flight scheduling was not the only issue with the Southwest Airlines crisis. In fact, most believe the problems posed by such a structure could have been easily overcome with the right technology. But Southwest has neglected such technology updates despite both Southwest Union and pilot unions pleading for updates. In essence, Southwest continues to operate off 1990’s software with outdated legacy systems. The improvements that have been made have been inadequate and far from comprehensive. Because of this, Southwest was unable to relocate airline staff and equipment to where it was needed. And at the same time, it was ineffective in communicating with its customers, undermining the airline customer experience.

People stressing over the Southwest Airlines crisis
Want to alienate your customers? Mess with their travel.

Believe it or not, pilots and staff at Southwest must contact the airline manually by phone if a flight gets cancelled. This lets Southwest know where their staff are while also enabling staff to get hotel accommodations. But because this requires phone communications with inadequate phone personnel, staff may be on hold for hours. This is an issue on a good day, but a nightmare when an airline needs to shift pilots and staff quickly. These same communications and technology issues also negatively affected the airline customer experience. Customers also spent hours and hours trying to locate luggage reschedule flights or receive vouchers. In short, the airline’s decision to ride the wave on old technology played a tremendous role in the Southwest Airlines crisis. The decision not to invest in these systems was both purposeful and intentional despite its inevitable impact on customer service.

“Our systems were overwhelmed by the scale of the disruption. We had available crews and aircraft, but our technology struggled to align our resources due to the magnitude and scale of the disruptions.” – Chris Perry, Southwest Airlines spokesperson

Lessons Still to Be Learned

While other airlines rebounded quickly, Southwest Airlines took days to return to what it called normal. But even now, it remains clear that the company continues to devalue the customer airline experience. By law, it is required to refund passengers for cancelled flights and provide hotel and meal vouchers. And it has also suggested it will provide reasonable reimbursement for alternative transportation arrangements. But the details of these latter concessions are far from clear. And many customers involved in the Southwest Airlines crisis will be unforgiving the next time they need to book travel. Indeed, Southwest will need to invest in technology systems and reconsider their flight structures. But more than anything, it must again place the airline customer experience at the top of their priority list. And it must also invest in customer satisfaction metrics. Until it does, such debacles will continue to reoccur, and the company will continue to see its reputation decline.

(Customer satisfaction metrics are a vital part of equation for successful customer service–read why in this Bold story.)

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