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What Marketing Pros Say About Southwest Airlines' Fiasco

Southwest Airlines’ 2022 pre-Christmas meltdown has led to negative headlines, social media outcry, and the looming threat of government investigations, but it may not damage the brand much over the long term.

Southwest airlinesAs the Los Angeles Times reports, marketing experts say that if Southwest carries through on its promises of operational change, customers are likely to have short memories.

Southwest, the biggest U.S. domestic carrier, canceled 13,000 flights after storms and computer problems. CEO Bob Jordan apologized multiple times. But, Jay Sorensen, a former Midwest Airlines marketing executive who now runs consultancy IdeaWorksCompany, pointed out that Southwest came in with “a lot of goodwill.” He told the Times the company’s reputation should hold up over the long haul “unless they completely botch the recovery.”

In 2017, United Airlines faced its own reputational crisis when a video of a 69-year-old passenger being dragged out of an aircraft went viral. Northwestern University business professor David Austen-Smith told the Tmes that despite the bad press and public backlash, the episode—which resulted in a confidential, out-of-court settlement—didn’t ultimately affect United much.

Still, Raymond James Financial analyst Savanthi Syth said that customers will probably choose Southwest’s rival airlines instead in the first three months of 2023. Former T. Rowe Price transportation analyst added that Southwest’s bookings could remain weak “until the half life of the anger is over and people are making spring-break plans.”

What’s more, The New York Times columnist Zeynep Tufekci argues, the type of software shortcomings that exacerbated Southwest’s fiasco aren’t limited to a single company. Tufekci writes that “the problem is widespread across many industries.”

As Claims Journal reports, a passenger has filed a proposed class action lawsuit against Southwest for allegedly failing to provide reimbursements after the meltdown. Southwest didn’t comment on the suit but said in a statement it had “several high priority efforts underway to do right by our customers, including processing refunds from canceled flights, and reimbursing customers for expenses incurred as a result of the irregular operations.”

As The Washington Post reports, industry observers don’t see the restoration of Southwest’s illustrious reputation as inevitable. Donna Roberts, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, told the newspaper, “Southwest has been like America’s sweetheart.” Southwest can “win back hearts and win back the trust of the consumer" if it seizes the movement, she said. Roberts urged the company “to be flamboyant in how they make this up to people.”

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