shutterstock_684935404-566797-editedAs novelist James Lane Allen famously said, “Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it.” How better to exemplify this than the way that Southwest Airlines handled the tragic engine failure last week. What could have been (and most certainly would have been for many other companies) a nightmare PR issue miraculously turned into an event that strengthened the company’s brand and solidified the loyalty and strong reputation it commands.

On the morning of Tuesday, April 17, a Boeing 737 Southwest flight from New York to Dallas blew an engine mid-air, which resulted in the unfortunate death of one of the passengers on board. The event is truly tragic, although it’s worth noting that things could’ve been a lot worse. The pilots, Captain Tammie Jo Shults and First Officer Darren Ellisor, showed unbelievable poise and calm under pressure, and made an emergency landing in Philadelphia without any further casualties.

So what did Southwest do differently in the wake of this tragedy that most companies likely wouldn’t have? It demonstrated how the airline actually lives its core value, “LUV.” 

Immediately after she heroically safely landed the plane, Captain Shults walked through the main cabin to check on her passengers. Although a small gesture, it shows that in the greatest moment of vulnerability, fear and despair, passengers were top of mind.

The passengers on that flight remained a top priority for the company, too. Only a few hours after the incident, Southwest flew a special flight for the impacted passengers to their original destination. The next day, Southwest’s CEO, Gary Kelly, sent an apology note to passengers accompanied by $5,000 for each passenger. Southwest constantly stayed in touch with passengers to make sure that they were being taken care of. Employees of the company around the country went above and beyond to rally around the company and what it stands for, and helped their customers cope during this tumultuous time.

The company also removed all promotions from its website and turned the red, blue and yellow colors of its logo to gray during this time of mourning. Again, it’s a small gesture, but it’s incredibly meaningful.

All of this is best encapsulated by the overwhelmingly positive comments from passengers about Southwest’s response. The comment that stands out to me most was from a firefighter on board who rushed mid-flight to try and rescue the passenger who sadly lost her life. He said: “Southwest is a great company and they took really good care of us. There’s no question in my mind as to who I’ll be flying with again.”

If this isn’t the gold standard for a company living its values, I’m not sure what is.


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Topics: Airlines, customer service, Southwest Airlines, public relations, crisis communications