Jan 19, 2023 - Economy

Southwest rebuilds reputation as the LUV airline

Photo: Seth Herald/AFP via Getty Images

Southwest Airlines is scrambling to resuscitate its reputation after the recent operational failures that affected roughly 1 million holiday travelers.

Why it matters: Communications weren't the problem, but they're a key part of Southwest's solution.

State of play: Now that flight schedules are back to normal, Southwest is activating on the PR front by acknowledging, apologizing and taking action.

  1. President and CEO Bob Jordan has appealed directly to consumers through a flurry of emails and videos apologizing, sharing operational updates and providing details on refunds — more than 90% of which have been completed — reimbursements and extra Rapid Rewards points.
  2. He's also briefed key legislators, members of the media and industry influencers on what Southwest is doing to avoid such failures going forward.
  3. This external communications push is being mirrored internally too, the airline says.

What they’re saying: "Southwest will navigate this operationally, and communications will complement that progress from a narrative standpoint," chief communications officer Linda Rutherford told Axios.

  • "We can refresh and rebuild that trust among our various stakeholders by being transparent and plain-spoken in terms of what we have learned and by showing tangible results of what we will do differently as a result."

Zoom in: Part of that action is an operations review committee appointed by its board of directors and an assessment by a third-party firm whose findings will be shared with key stakeholders.

The big picture: Southwest still ranks among the top three airlines — behind Delta and Alaska, but ahead of United and American — according to The Wall Street Journal's latest airline scorecard.

  • Plus: The airlines says it is seeing a steady stream of booking activity — particularly among frequent fliers.

What we’re watching: All eyes are on Southwest’s earnings call next week, which should give some indication of the reputational damage, shareholder sentiment and state of consumer loyalty.

  • We can expect them to firm up any fourth-quarter losses and provide context for current demand, revenue performance and any lingering financial impacts that spilled into the new year.
  • We can also expect to hear about operational corrections for the near and long-term, plus a healthy dose of Southwest employee LUV — a behind-the-scenes look at all they did to support consumers beyond the DOT requirements.

The bottom line: You can be doing all of the right things to rebuild after an operational crisis, but unless it is boldly communicated to all stakeholders, brand loyalty could continue to suffer.

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