It was a terrible tragedy, of course. But now a new report suggests that Southwest is benefiting from a very smart decision the airline made in the immediate aftermath.
From a financial perspective, Southwest estimates that flight 1380 will ultimately wind up costing the airline about $100 million. Yet, market research and data analytics firm YouGov calculates that Southwest is unlikely to suffer long-term financial damage or any serious long term hit to its brand.
In fact, in a poll June 4-5, nearly half of Americans said they had a positive view of Southwest--a better showing than any other U.S. airline.
So, how did Southwest pull this off? Here's what YouGov says. And while this is an extreme example, it suggests an important lesson for any business leaders forced to confront bad news about their company.
Heroism over horror
One of the key reasons why Southwest has emerged with so little brand damage, according to YouGov, stems from the smart execution of a brilliant PR and marketing strategy: namely, having the captain, first officer, and cabin crew go on a media tour in the wake of the catastrophe.
It also helped that Southwest offered $5,000, no strings attached to everyone aboard the flight, plus a $1,000 voucher for future travel.
Even as some other pilots were saying that the maneuver Captain Tammie Jo Shults and first officer Darren Ellisor pulled off (landing a 737 with a crippled engine and a hole in the fuselage) wasn't all that unusual, Southwest made the decision to put the captain and crew on television.
And it paid off. They appeared on ABC's 20/20 and NBC's Today, and were even invited to the White House for a meeting with President Trump (and wound up in his Twitter feed).
Meantime, public reaction solidified, and the crew's heroism overshadowed any other part of the story, including the horrific fact of Riordan's death, along with lawsuits and allegations over whether Southwest had maintained the engines on the aircraft effectively.
Smart versus lucky
This truly could have gone either way. It doesn't take much to imagine an alternate history, in which news stories might have acknowledged the crew's actions, but still focused more on Riordan's death, the panic that other passengers endured, and the mechanical failure.
It certainly helped that Shults has a compelling personal story. Before she landed the crippled flight 1380, she was best known for having been one of the first female fighter pilots in the U.S. military. At the same time, Southwest deserves credit for having recruited and retained her to begin with.
Back in May, I was trying to make sense of how Southwest and United were treated differently in the wake of two disturbing incidents.
United was pilloried for a March incident in which a dog died on a United flight. (I'm convinced that story might not have made much news if it weren't for one passenger's concerted effort to make it go viral.)
Yet, Southwest 1380, a month later, resulted in the death of a human being. And, as I wrote then, the overall narrative was very different: "Awe and gratitude for Southwest's heroic pilots."
I opined that it might have had to do with the relative brand halo of both Southwest and United; how Southwest's people had developed a corporate story in which the airline always made passengers feel good, while United couldn't claim that.
But I wonder in light of this YouGov study whether the brand halo is more of a symptom than a cause.
Indeed, the story here may well be that Southwest was deliberate--not just lucky.
The airline gave people every opportunity to focus their attention on the most positive part of this negative story: the crew's actions. And that meant less opportunity to focus on the very real and troubling parts of the story.
It was a brilliant strategy. Four months later, it seems like it paid off. And it's an example to remember if your company ever has to confront bad news. Find the most positive aspect, and make sure people have the chance to hear and repeat that part of the story.