Southwest Airlines Fails The Two Most Basic Lessons In Crisis Communications

When a bad story is about to break, you want to get the whole thing out at once, and you want your first story to be the story.

The worst thing that happens when a story goes wrong is to lose control of the narrative. You don’t want a drip, drip, drip of facts spilling out and extending the story. And you don’t want your narrative to fall apart.

That’s why you need to come out with a story that is true and that holds together. Don’t give people anywhere to go with the story.

So when Southwest Airlines’ operation melted down last weekend, what did they do? They blamed weather an the FAA. But the FAA hit back, hard.

Other airlines with hubs in the same cities, like Denver where some of the largest number of cancellations happened, didn’t experience major disruption. Southwest’s home base is Dallas, and so is American’s, and American didn’t experience more than 10% the level of cancellations that Southwest saw.

So how is Southwest now explaining cancelling a quarter of their flights on Sunday? Disruptions in Orlando on Friday. Um, ok.

One of our largest Crew Bases is at Orlando International Airport, and that airport was shut to departing and arriving air traffic for approximately seven hours on Friday—preventing the flow of aircraft and Crews into the network.

There were fast stories about pilots protesting vaccine mandates. The union disavowed this (of course, because it would have been illegal) and Southwest claims no knowledge to support this. But in the absence of an explanation that actually makes any sense – in the absence of clear communication, with the full true story, that’s become the dominant narrative. In other words, the story has gotten away from them.

At a minimum, in a crisis situation you don’t want to be changing stories. Stick to your narrative, gaslight if you have to, but changing up your explanation means you’ve already lost.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Haven’t flown SW in years & don’t plan on doing so anytime soon. What once was a fun airline has become a joke.

  2. I stopped flying SW several years ago also. The changing schedules and not reliable late-day flights was too much to deal with.

  3. I noticed that your quote of seven hours is different than what is currently on Southwest’s web site saying several hours. I’m not sure if they changed their web site, or if it went through autocorrect in an odd way. Seven hours would be a severe disruption, several is a squishy number.

  4. They came to Hawaii and are very resented locally. The airline equivalent of a loudmouth
    new resident that starts speaking pidgin upon arrival. They have lowered the air travel bar to Hawaii.
    Now this, no vaccine no Hawaii for their crews.

  5. I found it interesting the apology they blamed their own network structure (point to point) and their schedule (50% of the fleet routes through Florida every day). Seems they already know what changes are needed to mitigate future meltdowns.

  6. This has nothing to do with the article but Norwegian and other airlines are dropping mask requirements on flights within Scandinavia.

  7. As a parent of one daughter that has three children and works every day supporting her family and planning her family vacation for a few years putting money away every year then plans her surprise vacation to her two younger children aged of 10 and 9 and we surprised them on October 9th early morning that they where flying to Orlando to go to walt Disney for a vacation also my daughter had tee shirts made up say heading to Disneyland then south west text her saying that her flight was delayed untill 1:30 that afternoon now the kids are all excited that that there flying out to go on vacation then south west text my daughter telling her that her flight was delayed for the third time.Now her flight was not going out untill 4:30 that Saturday afternoon….my wife drop of everyone at the airport at 2:30 in Rhode Island now a couple of hours went by the kids are all excited there finally leaving then all of a sudden they cancel there flight and the repersentative from South West airlines told my daughter that she might not get a flight out untill maybe Wednesday …….my daughter starts crying the kids start crying she is all upset her plans of goinh on vacation are gone now mind you everything was pre-paid for Disney she ended up losing a couple of days of her vacation…….Its just not right i think that South west should be responsible for her entire vaction…..please let me no a concern father……

  8. Dear Southwest, Quit lying to your customers…I’m ashamed to be a Texan right now. Such a disgrace! What does the Bible say? You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (to move about the country).

  9. My family and I were set to fly home from Chicago to jobs and school when we were canceled 4 minutes after checking in and printing our boarding passes. We were then rebooked for the following day without asking us. We were offered $70 off a hotel stay and no explanation at all. Two southwest personnel were the only 2 handling the situation which backed the lines down the hallway and beyond. Not once did I see a supervisor come out to help or just be present to show they care. We were left to fend for ourselves. When I went to other airlines to find a flight the talk was about the labor dispute over the vaccines so they can hide and lie and change their stories but that is the real truth its just sad that they were unable to tell us the truth. Being a RN I have no choices but I understand those who do and are willing to stand up for their rights. Next time be truthful.
    A 12 hour car ride home

  10. Hoping our December Hawaii trip happens, nearly didn’t book on WN but had expiring luv vouchers and companion pass. But good when the airline throws reservations into doubt months into the future!

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