Marketing with Customer Service: the Southwest Airlines debacle

Southwest Airlines, the much-loved US based bargain priced flight carrier was the benchmark for customer service and low priced flights, which WestJet emulated in Canada when they first launched. A disruptive low-cost structure allowed them to be price competitive, while delivering a customer focused attitude of fun in the skies which, endeared them to the hearts of many Americans.

That all came crashing down (not a good visual for an airline) during the Christmas 2022 travel window. A peak seasonal surge, amplified by a post pandemic demand, and harsh winter storms covering much of the US challenged all airlines. Even in the best of times, those conditions could cause delay. But that’s not what broke South West Airlines. It appears it was their old technology and customer management systems, or more aptly put, a failure to invest in keeping those systems current, which brought the airline to its knees, and left thousands of passengers without flights for days on end.

The lost luggage nightmare is a mere chapter in their soon to be released book, or college marketing case study – “A Christmas to Remember.”

In the words of Alexander from the 1972 notable children’s book, last week Southwest Airlines had a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

Customer sentiment on Facebook

To get a sense of customer sentiment, I searched #southwestairlines on Facebook, and pulled three current posts from the feed. Collectively, they summarize the frustration, but also some brand good will, still lurking beneath the surface.


“This Southwest Airlines debacle is a ******* nightmare. After Southwest canceled 70 percent of their flights, though they are blaming weather, employees are spilling the beans that the network collapsed. They’re telling folks it will be four days before they can rebook. My daughter is trying to get to Florida and they haven’t even sent notification that her flight is canceled. We had to find out at check-in. I’m convinced they’ve taken the phone off the hook and gone home. This is a PR nightmare. They’re gonna have to offer $39 flights to Hawaii to bounce back from this!” #southwestairlines


 “The chaos being experienced at Southwest Airlines is outrageous. The Pilots Union, Flight Attendants Union, and FAA, say troubles now being experienced are because the airline has refused to update technology. I’ve been a fan of Southwest for years. I think they have the best employees in the industry. Today, however, I call on Chairman Bob Jordan to resign. He’s not up to the task of leading. Employees and customers deserve better.”

#airlines #southwestairlines #southwest #BobJordan


 “I will say this is bad…VERY bad. And I knew from the very beginning that the public relations team was doing a terrible job of getting around and articulating the truth. This failure doesn’t bode well for the leadership.

But I would be lying to say that I have not loved this airline for more than 20 of their almost 51 years. And even in their ugly space right now, I am careful in how I judge them. With my stranded passenger, sulking self, I have to fairly acknowledge:

I have come to know them for their exceptional service and friendly skies.

Southwest Airlines is still the airline that has seamlessly allowed me to travel between Dallas and Kansas City for more than 20 years.

It is the airline that has always given me (as the oldest child and someone committed to family) some comfort that I could always be “home” in any emergency in less than three hours.

It was the airline that got my father and Pastor to New York when the hospital told us to call the family in on my sister had been diagnosed with a rare blood disorder and things looked bleak.

It was the airline that got me to Memphis when my late best friend’s sisters said, “come now”!

It was the airline that I hopped on immediately when the “code blue” was called on my father.

It was the airline that allowed me during my three years of law school to travel for almost pennies rates as low as $39 each way!

It is the airline that has not charged for baggage, seat, assignments, snacks on board, or pretty much oxygen.

It is the airline that has accommodated my COGIC travel, allowing me to max out two 50-pound bags at no additional cost.

But I can’t use this moment to cancel all the good. Some lessons are bought. And the price will be high on this one. I sincerely hope that this will be a learning and that Southwest will make the necessary investments for future success. At the end of the day, I believe that most of us who travel by air are in a better position because Southwest Airlines is here.”


The post which started it all

If you search around a little more on Facebook, you’re bound to find a widely shared post from a long time Southwest Airlines employee, detailing a perspective on the airline’s history, where management decisions went wrong, and the more recent efforts to right the ship. You may have even seen or commented on it yourself.

The post offers some great insight on how a relentless emphasis on the bottom line and quarterly results for shareholders can take a toll over time. It’s an easy trap for a company based on a low-cost operating structure to support their low-priced fares, to fall into. It’s just unfortunate how deviating from the original mission, which also included great attention to customer experience, was at the root of not investing back into tech and customer management systems. It sounded like they were on the right track recently, but it takes time to catch up after neglect. They got exposed by brutal weather at a time of extreme demand, and high optics from the media. It’s a great lesson for all airlines!

Why customer service marketing matters in 2023

One of the trends I talked about in “10 Consumer Marketing Trends to be Tracking for 2023” was the Customer Service Void right now.  We’ve been lead to believe that many customer service issues emerging from the pandemic were related to staffing shortages and supply chain issues. While that is certainly true in many cases, the Southwest Airlines case exposes something even more threatening – lack of investment back into technology and systems, during a time of supposed pandemic austerity, while many corporations raked in record stock market profits.

Now, as the economy weakens, there will be continued pressure to cut back on expenses, but it’s exactly the time when investments need to be made. The Southwest debacle proves it.

What does this have to do with marketing?

EVERYTHING. Just ask anyone who is managing the message for Southwest right now. Consumers and third-party media are controlling their narrative. But the buried consumer good will, earned over decades delivering on the original brand promise, is still out there. They just need to dig deep, and get back to owning it again.

The lesson

Consumers are fatigued and rebellious. There is a known customer service void across many industries. They are me centered and selfish. And they’re empowered like never before through social media. THAT is an incredibly caustic mix, which Southwest Airlines had unleashed on them. But it should also give you a huge reason to consider your own practices towards customer care and service. Check out this recent post for a deep dive on those statements and trends here:

Mary Charleson

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