In March I wrote a post about the Southwest Airlines company blog. Southwest is experiencing a public relations crisis so I thought I'd take a look at the blog and see how the company was handling the issue.
In July a Southwest Customer Service Supervisor removed a young woman from a Southwest flight because he thought her attire was inappropriate. He ended up letting her back on the plane after she adjusted her clothing, but not apparently before he gave her a lecture. Last week the story exploded after the woman appeared, wearing the same outfit, on NBC's Today Show.
The issue is an odd one for Southwest. It has the image of the fun-loving, casual airline. It is treasured as the airline for the average person, where everyone is treated equally. And anyone who has flown the airline can attest to the cavalcade of flip-flops and tan lines presented by passengers of both sexes.
The reaction of Southwest customers and the online public has been strong. The blog posts and comments are emotional, and most are very critical of the airline. What is interesting is that some of the debate is playing out on Southwest's own blog. The company elected not to make a statement, but instead linked to a post on MSNBC by Dan Fleschner, a producer of the Today Show. In the post Fleschner writes "But when she sat down, we learned just how short that skirt was -- when she flashed our national television audience. Yeah, that skirt was short."
This twist in the story did lead to some support appearing on behalf of Southwest, but I'd estimate the negative comments still outweigh the positive by a ratio of 4 to 1. I think it was smart of Southwest to to keep its blog up and running. And it was brave and smart to leave comments open and allow the negative comments through. It must have been hard for the moderators to read the raw, emotional criticism from their usually fawning customers and then post it for the world to see.
Acknowledging the story on the blog must have been an interesting decision. I think linking to the MSNBC story vs. making an official comment was probably a mistake. It was a statement without making a statement, and it came off a bit snide to me which just doesn't feel like Southwest.
As for the issue itself, debates over appropriate behavior and dress will never be resolved. They have been with us for centuries. I think the real question is “how was the original situation handled?” Airline staff are trained how to approach and resolve challenging situations with customers. I am surprised the supervisor confronted the woman in front of the other passengers. If he had raised his concerns out of earshot of other passengers this situation may not have escalated. If it was indeed handled poorly, if the confrontation was public, and if the passenger was truly lectured, then I think it is an example of poor training or poor employee performance. The young woman was going to be embarrassed even if she was addressed with respect and understanding, but she would have likely dealt with it and moved on. What upsets people is when they are treated roughly, without respect and compassion.