Southwest's next course: damage control

The Baltimore Sun

DALLAS -- No passengers died. No planes crash-landed. No pilots even reported malfunctions.

But questions about safety inspection failures at Southwest Airlines could still hurt the company's brand and cost it millions of dollars.

"A brand is a promise," said Kevin Keller, a marketing professor at Dartmouth College. "When a company violates that promise, in any way, it must apologize sincerely. It must fix the problem swiftly. And it must convince customers that it will never repeat the mistake."

Only time will tell how much the Dallas-based company suffers from recent revelations that it flew some jets with small cracks in their bodies and that it failed to properly test many others for similar problems.

The airline has detected no effect on bookings, Southwest spokeswoman Beth Harbin said.

Meanwhile, on many of the Web's biggest travel sites, Southwest's troubles drew only moderate comment. A search Thursday for "Southwest" and "safety" at TripAdvisor returned only two discussion threads, neither with more than a dozen comments.

As passengers consider their reaction to the news, several factors bode well for Southwest Airlines Co., observers say.

First, and most important, no planes suffered any significant problems in flight. Second, Southwest has no history of major safety problems. Third, consumers love the brand.

Such advantages may help offset several potential problems:

Aviation inherently terrifies millions of people. Any problem at any airline is enough to worry people who shrug off reports of exploding batteries and shoddy tires.

Passengers have no way to look at a plane and judge its condition. Unlike Johnson & Johnson, which used highly visible seals to reassure customers after the Tylenol poisoning scare, Southwest cannot do anything to let customers see the problem is fixed.

Consumers tend to suspect that "low cost" service providers such as Southwest cut corners to keep prices down. Any bad news from those companies intensifies those suspicions.

How can Southwest minimize the damage? Several brand management experts agreed on a broad strategy.

As tempting as it is to play down problems, they said, Southwest executives should face the situation fully, detail each failure publicly and apologize sincerely. With that done, they should commit the company to a plan that goes far beyond mere compliance with neglected rules. Southwest should hold itself to internal safety standards that exceed anything from the Federal Aviation Administration. Ideally, this plan should saddle the company with some very visible costs - even if those costs do little to make its planes safer.

"Back during the Tylenol poisoning scare, Johnson & Johnson recalled and discarded millions of Tylenol bottles, even when there was no reason whatsoever to suspect any problems with them," said Larry Chonko, an ethics professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.

"By spending millions of dollars to eliminate even the smallest possibility of further problems, J&J; showed that it valued people more than profits. That's a huge step in rebuilding trust."

Some observers argued that Southwest needs to act very quickly. Others said the company should take whatever time it needs to get things right.

"Quick is good, but accuracy trumps that every time," said Ed Stewart, a former Southwest public relations manager who now is a senior vice president at the public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard in Dallas. "Ultimately, you want to be dealing with factual situations."

Others said there's no need for Southwest to do much more than it has done.

"Assuming that Southwest is being truthful when it asserts that it never flew an unsafe plane, I don't see any need to fan customer fears by acting as if there's a major problem," said Daniel Howard, chairman of the marketing department at Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business.

Still, in an apparent response to the groundings, the airline has dropped a plan to move some maintenance operations outside the U.S. The carrier ended talks with the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association to shift some work to El Salvador, Louie Key, the union's assistant national director, said yesterday.

Bloomberg News contributed to this article.

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