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Southwest's Reputation: Will Hole in Planes Leave Lasting Damage?

As the FAA investigates the cause of the 5-foot tear in the roof of the Southwest Airlines plane that lost cabin pressure and made an emergency landing at a military base in Arizona, the public is wondering about what's the cause and who's to blame. The uncertainty is likely to damage the reputations of all involved.

What are the "corporate images" of the players involved and what do they need to do to protect their reputations and allay the fears of the flying public?

Southwest Airlines
Southwest Airlines has built a successful business and a favorable customer service reputation. However, similar incidents on two Southwest planes within two years has many wondering about the safety of their flights. They took an "image hit" from the previous 2009 incident, which resulted in a $7.5 million FAA fine for operating 737s without undergoing required inspections. Many travelers are avoiding older planes. Some have even stopped flying Southwest. Per the Fort Worth Star Telegram, New York accountant Larry Elkin said on his firm's website, "I will gladly come back, when someone tells me that the new safety procedures really are well-targeted toward the problem."

In an effort to mitigate the image damage, Southwest quickly issued a public statement expressing their concern for public safety, grounded 79 similar planes for inspection, and communicated with passengers that had reservations on the grounded planes. They also kept the flying public informed on their Web site and via Twitter and Facebook updates.

Even so, image problems remain from the uncertainty over skin-fatigue cracks related to both the age of their planes and the number of cycles (takeoffs and landings). Unlike other airlines, Southwest only flies 737s and has more takeoffs and landings with short turnarounds in a day than other airlines. The plane involved in the incident reportedly logged 39,000 cycles over its 15-year life, or an average of 7.2 cycles a day.

Southwest spokeswoman, Linda Rutherford, tried to shift the blame to Boeing by saying "This is a Boeing-designed airplane. This is a Boeing-produced airplane... It's obviously concerning to us that we're finding skin-fatigue issues." While her statement makes sense, the 2009 FAA fine compromises the credibility of her claim. Boeing spokespeople declined to respond to Ms. Rutherford's comments.

The Boeing 737 is the best-selling passenger plane in the world. It has also been deemed one of the safest. (Disclosure: Boeing is a former client of mine). Historically, Boeing has had a great reputation. Flyers and travel bloggers are fond of repeating the slogan, "if it is not Boeing, I am not going."

On the other hand, Boeing's name is on the aircraft that blew its top, and the company hurt its own credibility by saying that cracks in the skins of older 737s have appeared sooner than expected and by creating maintenance protocols that only called for visual inspections of the failed section. After the Southwest incident, the FAA issued an emergency order that requires electromagnetic inspections of 737s that have logged over 30,000 cycles. This could not happen at a worse time for Boeing, whose reputation has been tarnished by repeated delays of the long-awaited 787 Dreamliner and a new 747 freighter that was a year late and cost Boeing $1 billion in late fees.

Risky Business
While flying is the safest form of travel, it is a risky business for those involved in making and flying the planes. When the inevitable bad things happen, the best companies can do is to quickly figure out the problem and be forthcoming with customers. What can any business learn from this latest incident on Southwest Airlines? Employ the fact procedure to protect your reputation.

  • Admit the problem, and apologize if necessary (do not "point the finger" as the spokeswoman for Southwest did because it is likely to compromise your credibility).
  • Limit the scope (in this case put the incident in perspective and provide data that shows that flying on a Southwest 737 is very safe).
  • Propose a solution so it will not happen again (a more rigorous and frequent inspection of planes that have more than 30,000 cycles and numerous cycles in one day).
How have you handled incidents that threatened to harm your reputation?


Ira Kalb is president of Kalb & Associates, an international consulting and training firm, and professor of marketing at the Marshall School of Business at University of Southern California (USC). Follow him on Twitter.
images courtesy of flickr users, BFS Man and Dave Sizer
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