Crashing and burning: A Southwest story

In my last post, I talk about how some airlines were using social media in engaging their customers.

Digging deeper, let’s talk about how airlines mismanage on the frontline and how PR and social media, if not well managed, can lead to more bruising to brands.

Southwest airlines, a US flight provider, has a spate of bad publicity on its flight safety issues when cracks were found on its planes. To make things worst, Southwest’s bad customer service and blatant singling out of obese passengers were exacerbated last year when Kevin Smith, an American screen-writer and director was forced to purchase two seats because he was deemed too fat to fly. Smith went on Twitter to rant about his experience, as reported in People.

“You (have messed) with the wrong sedentary processed-foods eater!” – Kevin Smith

But Southwest still didn’t learn.

In April this year, Kenlie Tiggeman, a political strategist and her mother were picked out from the boarding queue for being possibly too obese to fly on a single seat.

In Tiggeman’s blogpost recounting her humiliation and embarrassment with Southwest’s management of the weighty issue, it was evident that the ‘too fat to fly’ policy is not new information to airline passengers. However, managing such issues with sensitivity is not a top priority for Southwest Airlines.

Southwest’s frontline staff stuffed up pretty much on all counts of issues management, customer relations and public relations. Here’s why:

  • When questioned, Southwest staff didn’t know what was the weight or dimension limitations set for obese passengers.
  • Southwest staff allowed another larger built, football player whose weight was much heavier (and also publicly available) than Tiggeman board the flight.
  • Should Tiggeman be too fat to fly, this issue should’ve been managed at the check-in counter and not at the boarding queue.
  • Tiggeman’s flight was a return purchase; she was allowed to fly on her outbound flight on a single seat. Why the discrepancy?

Despite Tiggeman’s appearance on the NBC news, blogpost and the Kevin Smith incident, Southwest Airlines didn’t issue any official statements nor apology. A manager had then offered Tiggeman and her mother flight vouchers for their next trip on Southwest to make amends.

Tiggeman, being a political strategist, has since filed a complaint with the relevant authorities against Southwest for discrimination.

A sound understanding of business issues and functions is important in issues and crisis management because rules and exceptions can only be made when knowledge of how the business operates is understood by staff. Issues are only issues when there are not managed and communicated well to target publics.

Southwest could have acted more proactively by:

  • training its staff on managing such sensitive issues after the first well-publicised ‘fat discrimination’ incident,
  • having its seats’ dimensions readily available on its communication platforms so that passengers can make an informed decision,
  • circulate guidelines on the weight and dimensional ceilings before passengers are required to purchase an additional seat and
  • have its customer relations and PR team monitor, counter and manage these potential litigation issues before it tarnishes their brand and reputation, not to mention their bottomline too.

Now, what else do you think Southwest could have done to prevent its brand and reputation from going down south?


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