Jan 3, 2023 - News

Southwest's long road to winning back customer trust

A crowd of passengers by a Southwest ticket gate

A lot of Southwest ticketing counters looked like this over the holidays. Photo: Seth Herald/AFP via Getty Images

Southwest's long journey toward winning back the trust of its customers is off to a smooth start — the airline canceled fewer than 100 flights over the weekend — but there's still a long way to go.

The big picture: The Dallas-based airline will review every aspect of its operations — including the company's outdated scheduling technology and its unique point-to-point routing — after an epic holiday season meltdown resulted in more than 15,000 canceled flights, stranding tens of thousands of passengers.

  • "We look forward to the opportunity to address any needs of our customers over the coming days as we strive to return to our previous level of Southwest hospitality and reliability," a Southwest spokesperson told Axios.

Why it matters: For years, Southwest has had a sparkling reputation for customer service, building a famously loyal following nationwide.

Yes, but: During the week of Christmas, social media feeds were filled with videos of bedraggled passengers stranded in airports, some for several days.

  • A bride had to postpone her wedding and spent New Year's alone after the airline canceled her flight.
  • Some passengers were threatened with arrest on Christmas for "trespassing" at the airport where they were stranded.

State of play: Southwest CEO Bob Jordan publicly apologized and the airline has repeatedly pledged to cover reasonable expenses, including flights, hotels, car rentals and other costs incurred by customers with canceled flights and missing bags.

The intrigue: The company spent $5.6 billion on shareholder gifts in the years ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic, reinstating a quarterly dividend just weeks before the most recent meltdown.

  • Meanwhile, industry analysts and union representatives have warned that the company's rapid growth and antiquated operations technology made this fiasco inevitable.

Reality check: A Southwest spokesperson told Axios that it's "too soon for us to share specific information" about how much this debacle will cost the airline, including refunded tickets, costs of lost luggage and potential fines from the federal government.

Context: The company lost $75 million amid a slew of flight cancellations in October 2021 — and this meltdown involved five times the number of canceled flights.


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