What Southwest’s Travel Disruption Taught Us About Customer Service

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Alana Chinn
Alana Chinn

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The holiday season is the season for air travel. And in 2022, AAA estimated a 14% increase in domestic flights.

illustration of several frustrated customers missing a flight on the tarmac

This means nearly 7.2 million people were hopping on a plane between December 23, 2022 and January 2, 2023.

We're talking pre-pandemic numbers for the first time since 2019.

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While the holidays can be tumultuous for all airlines, this time, the spotlight was on Southwest. Let's review what went down.

Jump ahead:

Let's Recap

Southwest Airlines initiated a significant travel disruption that misplaced travelers all across the country.

Flights were canceled, re-booking services were temporarily unavailable, and thousands of customers were furious.

According to Southwest, the travel interruptions took place between December 24, 2022 and January 2, 2023. However, earlier weather-related flight delays ultimately catapulted the airline into an operational crisis.

The most wonderful time of year? Not so much for Southwest.

Timeline of Events

Let's summarize the timeline of events using Southwest's Twitter feed.

December 21, 2022: The Start of Weather and Winter Storm Delays

December 26, 2022: Continued Flight Delays, Widespread Cancellations, and High Customer Inquiry Volumes

December 27, 2022: Statement of Apology from Southwest CEO

December 31, 2022: Southwest Introduces Travel Disruption Assistance

But how did consumers really feel about all of this?

How Consumers Responded

Naturally, consumers were not happy. I personally try to avoid airports during the holiday season, but this was truly the worst case scenario for a lot of the affected flyers.

Angry passengers took to social media to air out their frustrations.

Here are some of the common themes.

Theme 1: Confusion (What are my next steps?)

From misplaced baggage to new flight schedules, consumers had no idea what to do next.

Theme 2: Frustration (Why can't I reach customer service?)

Long wait times and disconnected communications were a strong point of contention.

Theme 3: Disappointment (How could you let this happen?)

Customers were torn between their loyalty and the discouragement they were feeling toward their airline of choice.

Despite the negative, there were still some customers who chose to look at the bright side.

Theme 4: Confidence (How can I continue to support you?)

Some customers stuck by Southwest and trusted that the airline would follow through on its promises.

Based on the overwhelming consumer response, let's get into what we can learn from this when it comes to customer service.

Key Takeaways for Customer Service

Here are five major takeaways that I've learned based on the Southwest flight disruption.

southwest customer service (1)

1. Crisis communication planning is absolutely critical.

It's clear that a lot of the confusion and frustration toward Southwest was due to lapses in communication.

That's why having a crisis communication plan is an absolute must.

Consider the following:

  • What communication channels do your customers use the most? Southwest's social media channels (e.g., Twitter) were flooded with inquiries.
  • How will you inform your employees about a crisis? Some of Southwest's employees posted on LinkedIn to provide insight about crisis resolution.
  • What immediate steps will you take to mitigate the crisis? Southwest leadership knew they had to collaborate with their IT team ASAP to work toward a solution.

Focus on meeting your customers where they are — and quickly.

2. You have to own up to your mistake.

Customers can smell blame-avoidance tactics from a mile away.

While adverse weather conditions ultimately started the series of flight delays and cancellations, it was Southwest's IT infrastructure that really failed here. And customers knew that.

Instead of making excuses for why something happened, be as honest as you can be. And double down on your commitment to get things resolved.

3. Self-service tools are indispensable.

When unexpected events take place, customers want answers.

In Southwest's case, thousands of consumers were affected, and the airline's customer service channels were extremely backed up.

But can you imagine how much worse it would've been if customers couldn't make flight changes or refund requests on their own?

Self-service tools provide serious burden relief for your support team.

4. Social media backlash is inevitable.

We know this to be true, so it's important to handle it with grace.

How you respond to your customers — even if they're angry and threatening to leave — matters. And some of the most memorable responses are the negative ones from scorned businesses.

Southwest did a good job of responding to a number social media messages with positivity and professionalism during an especially trying time.

5. Nothing beats a genuine apology (with amends).

The next step after owning your mistake is apologizing for it. Show your customers that you're regretful about the mistake and that you want to make up for it.

That's the key to getting customers to stick around even when things go wrong.

In addition to a public apology, Southwest offered the following:

  • Expedited rebooking services
  • Refunds and travel-related expense reimbursements
  • Baggage location assistance
  • Free Rapid Rewards bonus points

Southwest still has a long road ahead to mend its relationship with customers. But making them feel compensated for is a step in the right direction.

The Bottom Line

No business is perfect. But it's not about perfection when it comes to crisis navigation — it's about preparation and poise.

crisis communication

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