Time and again we've seen a different version of the same story. Southwest Airlines tops almost every customer satisfaction study or survey -- one after another after another

Heck, just last month, Tripadvisor released its 2019 Travelers' Choice Awards. Southwest Airlines was far and away the big winner among U.S. airlines -- and number 6 among every airline in the world.

But then fast-forward a few weeks. Because there's another report out, and the news isn't anywhere near as good for Southwest. In fact, it's downright troubling.

No longer number-1

The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) released its 2019 airline ratings this week. Last year, Southwest topped the list. But this year, Alaska Airlines took over the top spot, and Southwest slipped into a two-way tie for second with JetBlue.

A precipitous drop? I don't mean to overstate. It's not like Southwest dropped to 90th or anything.

But this index is based on 12,873 customer experiences between the April and March this year. And we can point to three specific things that happened during that time:

  • April 17, 2018: Southwest passenger Jennifer Riordan was killed aboard a Southwest flight, after a particularly gruesome accident in which she was partly pulled through a broken window and almost sucked out of hte plane.
  • October 29: Lion Air Flight 610, which was a Boeing 737 Max, crashes, killing all aboard.
  • March 10: Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, which was also a Boeing 737 Max, also crashes, killing all aboard.

Southwest of course, is the the number-1 U.S. customer for the 737 Max.

ACSI made a point of saying in a report that it's the 737 crashes that "have left Southwest particularly vulnerable to safety concerns."

What you sell (vs. what your customers buy)

I've written many times about the incredible loyalty that Southwest engenders in its customers. You can try to break down some of the factors: the simplicity in ticketing and bookings, for example, or the distinctive boarding policies.

Southwest bundles checked bags and change fees into ticket price. So, you'll almost never see a Southwest passenger livid in an airport because of a surprise charge to check a bag, or ranting against on Twitter because they were charged almost the full value of a ticket to make a change.

It always seems Southwest has been successful in selling a travel experience, rather than simply a commoditized seat on a plane.

It works -- but only if customers believe that your product, at its core, is at least as good as the commodities that everyone else is selling.

And in the airline industry, the very first thing that could crack that perception is the fear that your aircraft somehow aren't quite as safe as the competition.

Perception and reality

I have no reason to think that Southwest is any more or less safe than its competitors. When Riordan died tragically last year, her death represented the only time since 2009 that anyone has died aboard any U.S. carrier.

And there's no reason to fear the 737 Max on Southwest -- at this moment, of course, all 34 Southwest 737 Max airplanes are grounded, reportedly sitting in the desert in Victorville, Califonia.

But again, it's all about perception--including Southwest's decision to double down on the 737 Max, and even talk about ordering hundreds more of the plane.

Speaking of which, United Airlines doesn't fly anywhere near as many 737 Max aircraft, but it still was ranked far lower on the ACSI list.

In fact, it was above only above low cost carriers, Frontier and Spirit -- and even below Alegiant, which was the subject of a brutal CBS News 60 Minutes expose right around the time the ACSI timeframe began.

For United, there's nowhere to go but up. But on Southwest, you have to imagine they're concerned about suffering even more of a hit as the whole 737 Max crisis drags on.