Among the big airlines, Southwest’s brand is the one best known – even loved – for its customer-friendly attitude. Where other airlines’ bureaucratic mindset frustrates and alienates customers, Southwest stands apart with excellent service, good humor and common sense policies. People who like Southwest REALLY like Southwest. It’s hard to find fans of that kind of any their competitors.
It’s hard to imagine Southwest taking a similar approach to the events that have mired United in one of the worst PR disasters in recent memory this week. From inception to execution and then communication, the choices United made were the opposite of what one imagines Southwest would do. Not since BP CEO Tony Hayward inserted his foot deeply into his mouth during the Gulf oil spill have we seen such ham-fisted and tone deaf responses.
And at the heart of it lies a complete lack of empathy with customers. That much was clear from the first not-apology issued by United which defended its actions and policies without much of a nod to the passengers alarmed, even frightened, by the violence being visited upon one of their ranks.
Perhaps this time an airline has finally gone too far and as customers make their decisions about which airline to choose, they’ll be willing to pay a little extra to fly an airline that ‘gets’ them. United should view this as a wake up call and at a minimum, avail itself of experienced crisis communications counsel to help repair the inestimable damage it has done to its brand and reputation.