ATW Editor's Blog

Southwest’s ‘LUV’ heart beats through tragedy

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It’s not something that any airline wants to be in a position to “get right,” but what Gary Kelly and his team at Southwest Airlines have demonstrated is the textbook way to respond to a disaster.

Immediately it became clear that something had gone tragically wrong yesterday with one of its flights, Southwest’s emergency response team was at work;  with its people, with responders at Philadelphia Airport, where flight 1380 made an emergency landing, getting assistance to those affected, and communicating to the wider public its shock, condolences and what information it had.

US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators are on the scene to establish what happened and why.

For the 144 passengers and five crew, it was an awful ordeal. The left engine of the Boeing 737-700 exploded, hurling shrapnel through a window, which broke open. A female passenger was half sucked out of the plane and other passengers battled to keep her inside; she later died. Depressurization meant everyone was wearing oxygen masks and the remaining flight must have been terrifying, even though it was coolly and expertly flown to a safe landing.

But if airlines (or any service company) want a real-world guide on to how to respond in a crisis, they should look at how Southwest handled this incident. The messaging was quick and easily accessible, distributed on social media, in press statements, at a press conference, and via the posting of a video by CEO Kelly.

In that video, Kelly looks shocked, calls it a “sad” and “tragic” day; he expresses his deep condolences to the victim’s family and sympathy to all those affected. He says they are Southwest’s top priority and pledges every assistance to them. He makes clear that it was an engine failure and that Southwest will give the NTSB investigation its full support. He thanks the crew and those at Philadelphia Airport for their actions. And he promises more information as it becomes available.

With impressive speed, the company offered a from the top message of heartfelt condolences, assistance to those directly affected; transparency,  gratitude to those who helped, and a promise to find out what went wrong.

No airline CEO wants to be in the position Kelly is in this week. But all airlines should have crisis communications plans. And while it will be no comfort to Southwest’s People, they should be commended for their preparation and professionalism in a crisis.

Karen Walker karen.walker@informa.com  

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