A Few Cracks in Southwest Airlines’ Veneer

Southwest Airlines has canceled hundreds of flights since a five-foot hole tore through one of its aircrafts during a flight on Friday. Other cracks were found in planes that have been inspected over the past few days. Separately, another flight on Sunday experienced reports of a burning smell and was forced to land in Los Angeles. No one was seriously hurt in any of these incidents.

In statements reported to The New York Times, the airline said it was trying to keep passenger inconvenience to a minimum and that 57 of its 79 planes were already cleared for take-off.

A former NTSB board member, John Goglia, told PBS NewsHour that these sorts of cracks speak to a lack of thorough inspection. Still, it’s not the inspection process, but Southwest Airlines that needs to manage this problem right now.

Southwest’s press release page contains a number of alerts with updates for the past three days. The latest notice states: “Southwest Airlines is experiencing relatively few flight delays and cancellations while we are proactively inspecting some of our Boeing 737s… The majority of our scheduled service is not affected, and to check the status of your flight, please go to:  Flight Status Information.”

On some level, passengers do want to hear that there are flight delays while an airline gets its aircraft in order so we can avoid making Lost a reality show.  Nevertheless, minimizing delays as much as possible is one way of maintaining customer loyalty through a crisis.

Moreover, reports are putting Southwest at the top of this month’s Air Quality Rating report.

But, the airline has paid Federal Aviation Administration fines for not properly inspecting its planes, reported that its planes may be overdue for an inspection previously after whistleblowers stepped forward, and had an incident where another hole in 2009 caused an abrupt landing, Fox News reports. The story goes on to say that new FAA safety inspection rules are likely in the offing.

Once the inspections are complete and everything is back on schedule, Southwest should add another layer to its messaging, which has focused on customer service issues like free bags and rewards. Safety measures, and how the airline doesn’t compromise them to keep prices low and seats filled, would be a reassuring talking point.