What Southwest Airlines Taught Us About Crisis Management


Thanks to the Wall Street Journal we got a fascinating glimpse of the behind the scenes response at Southwest Airlines in the immediate aftermath of the terrifying and tragic incident on April 17th, 2018 when an engine failed causing the death of a female passenger and endangering the lives of the entire load of passengers and crew.

Aside from the well-organized specifics of the airline’s crisis plan and response, it was another valuable lesson into how the new rules of crisis management are applied when the worst really does happen.

The Journal reported how senior management happened to be together at a planning meeting in Dallas when flight 1380 got into serious trouble. 

Southwest had a well drilled emergency response ready to go:

  • They examined the photos, videos and tweets being published by passengers to understand what was happening.
  • CEO Gary Kelly issued a 40-second video of apology on social media.
  • Southwest issued multiple updates with brief facts.
  • Behind the scenes, the immediate focus was to ensure there was appropriate resources in Philadelphia, where the flight made its emergency landing.
  • Employees were assigned individual passengers to help with travel arrangements and counseling.
  • Calls were made to the appropriate airline supervisory bodies – the Federal Aviation Administration and the NTSB.
  • Four employees flew to Albuquerque, the hometown of the passenger who was fatally injured, to provide help to her family.
  • On the 2nd day, passengers received personal phone calls and emails offering resources and support.
  • Each passenger was sent a $5,000 check plus a $1000 travel voucher for future flights.

It must be said that Southwest did rather well against five of the rules identified in the recent eBook, ‘The New Rules of Crisis Management’, published by In Case of Crisis with support from the PRSA.

The book is rich in analysis of what effective crisis management looks like in the digital age, but five of the key overarching themes are:

  • Social media is an effective two-way communication channels – Full marks to Southwest. It used passengers’ social media posts to help understand the situation – and used its own channels to effectively communicate the apology and situation updates.
  • Organizations must remain authentic in good times and bad – This was Southwest’s first experience of a passenger fatality. The response was open, authentic and true to Southwest’s distinctive brand values. One example – the $5000 checks to passengers came with no strings attached. Should they wish to do so, the passengers could still sue the airline.
  • In a crisis, employees are one of your most important audiences- Two big wins here for Southwest. The pilots who safely landed the plane proved to be well trained and real heroes. And Southwest employees were front and center of the airline’s support for the passengers and the family of the woman who tragically died.
  • The golden rule is that every crisis plan must direct that a statement be issued within an hour of a crisis going public- in this aspect, Southwest did a lot better than Starbucks. They responded quickly via social media and had their team feeding real time information to the executive team directing the crisis response.