Southwest: institutionalizing apologies

Interesting article in the New York Times today about how airlines handle communications with customers when something goes wrong. Perhaps because JetBlue is too busy figuring out what the hell happened over the last six weeks to talk to the press, the paper talks to the “chief apology officer” of Southwest Airlines. And the article shows why Southwest, which has been the low-cost airline of choice for over 35 years, is still a customer favorite.

If, as Doc Searls writes, companies have souls, then Southwest’s soul is funny, irreverent, but deeply concerned that you get there on time and enjoy yourself while doing so—in other words, the perfect cruise director. And really, that’s not such a bad way to think about the job of the overworked, underpaid flight attendants and gate staff who have to deal with arrogant type A business travelers like myself and clueless vacation travelers like the folks who are generally in the security line before me. The surprise is not that Southwest is so good at what it does, it’s that the other airlines haven’t figured out how important it is.

That’s why a nightmare like Southwest’s experience in Las Vegas last month (while I was there, the rumors were coming back to the Venetian about two hour waits to get into the terminal and eight hour waits at the ticket counters) is only a blip for the airline, while the completely understandable weather delays that hit JetBlue have totally paralyzed it. JetBlue doesn’t have a soul yet. Its early spirit—a smart, modern, can-do pioneer—lasted only as long as its long-term future strategy on jet fuel prices did. I still remember having conversations with a quiet, rueful attendant the week that they took their first bad quarter. They haven’t regained that spirit yet. Perhaps by taking a lesson from Southwest, they might start to regain some of that spirit.