Hey, Tell Me Why Southwest Cost Me A Steak Dinner in Vegas!


Tuesday afternoon I was sitting in an exit row seat of a Southwest Airlines flight from San Francisco to Las Vegas.

I was looking forward to a big steak dinner with a small group of friends who happen to be clients that work in the hospitality business in Vegas.  Needless to say, with their restaurant connections, they eat very well.

The door closed on the aircraft and we rolled out to the runway.  The captain said we were third for departure.  All was going well, and then…

The captain informed us there was a “paperwork screw-up” and we would be held for an hour on the ground.  After thirty minutes he came back on the speaker system and said “we have no idea what’s going on, but we’re going back to the gate, so you’ll  be able to get off and stretch your legs in the boarding area.”

As many of you now know all of Southwest Airlines flights at that moment were grounded by the FAA because the entire computer systems of Southwest Airlines failed.  The cause? Southwest was updating their loyalty card systems to include information from AirTran, a smaller carrier they had recently acquired.

I never made it to the steak dinner.

At the boarding gate it was chaos.   Three different Southwest employees were talking to three different groups of passengers telling three different stories.  If you checked your luggage you had to get back on the plane.  Everyone was free to go get some food and bring it back.  The plane would be taking off in 15 minutes.  The plane was grounded for at least two hours.

I ran and grabbed a BLT and a Coke and brought it back to the plane.

After my impromptu dinner, I opened up Tweetdeck on my iPhone and searched the hashtag #southwest.  Wow!  The comments were “flying” by: chaos at LAX, PHX, other airports.  On and on, passengers were spewing their anger across the Internet.

Southwest has been a pioneer of sorts in social media.  They have more than a million Facebook Fans and a million Twitter followers.  They’re known for jumping in and responding to individual tweeters who have complaints.

Tuesday night?  Silence.  As Brett Snyder of B.Net described it, “eerily silent.”

Nothing on Facebook either, except a bland PR statement at 3pm PDT:

“We are aware of the issues with southwest.com today. We have all hands on deck to resolve the issues as quickly as possible. As you may know, we are launching our All-New Rapid Rewards program today, and we appreciate your patience as we work to get the site back up to speed!”

That’s all.  One PR release in the middle of the chaos.

Meanwhile people from my flight were wandering around the airport concourse checking on other flights, getting food, grabbing a beer.

And then I realized that the Southwest employees at the gate having collected our paper boarding passes when we got on, weren’t handing them back as we got off to “stretch our legs.”

In the confusion there were 50 or 60 passengers who had left the plane without boarding passes.  When they returned, they just got back on.  In fact, I was one of those people.  Anyone could have gotten on to that plane in the confusion.

Meanwhile on the Web, the Southwest Website wasn’t allowing people to log in and buy tickets, or see their accounts in the loyalty point system.   People calling on the phone were on hold for more than 30 minutes, even the next day (I gave up at the 30 minute mark, so I can’t say how long the response time actually was, beyond 30 minutes.)

It’s early in the evolution of how big corporations use social media.  Give Southwest credit for extending their perky, somewhat wacky brand identity into social media channels like Facebook and Twitter.  But setting up a Facebook page and a Twitter account are not a social media strategy.

It is customer service disasters like this that social media can actually be one of the strongest ways to communicate, to explain and apologize.  But I imagine Southwest’s PR agency, whomever they are, swooped in with their “crisis management” team, and what we got was corporate speak, probably vetted by several lawyers.

All they had to do was get a team on the social media channels they had and have them engage with as much information as the management team knew.  Be transparent and say you’re sorry.

That’s how a company will respond with social engagement sometime in the near future.  Personally, I hope that pioneer is Southwest Airlines.

Because if you’re going to cost me a $65 steak dinner in Vegas, I better know the reasons why.


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About Rohn Jay Miller

I'm a strategic designer who works with clients who are transforming their business models because of change brought on by the Internet. Solving disruption is often a problem and an opportunity at the same time. Previously I was a founding partner of Ikonic/USWeb in San Francisco, and Senior Vice President--Product & Technology for Knight Ridder in San Jose.

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One Response to Hey, Tell Me Why Southwest Cost Me A Steak Dinner in Vegas!

  1. Shawn M Adams April 4, 2011 at 12:40 pm #

    Ok, so normally I wouldn’t really care much about the drama with the airlines (or railroads) in this country because they are always crying poverty looking for state and federal bailout moneys, while spending on payrolls like a drunken sailor on hookers…

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