During the critical holiday travel week between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, Southwest Airlines canceled nearly 17,000 flights, leaving several thousand passengers with few options to get to or return from their destinations.

The airline initially blamed the cancellations on weather issues, but when no other airlines — all facing the same weather — canceled anywhere near the same percentage of flights, Southwest had to admit it had more than just weather issues. The company’s overloaded crew scheduling software had crashed, leaving many of the scheduled flights without crews.

Some customers were able to rebook on other airlines at a substantial cost, and others were able to find ground transportation, but that was the exception. The stranded customers as well as those who found other forms of transportation were not only angry at the carrier, the issue resulted in two class-action lawsuits as well as calls for an investigation from the Biden administration and a group of US senators.

Southwest started by offering passengers with canceled flights 25,000 frequent flyer points. Here is Southwest's official response to the flight cancellations. But more needs to be done to rebuild the carrier’s reputation, according to CX pundits. Below are some suggestions for how Southwest can begin to repair the damage. 

Explain Changes Underway to Prevent Recurrence

“On the scale of corporate crises this is at the catastrophic end of the spectrum,” said Anthony D'Angelo, public relations professor at Syracuse University. “When the Secretary of Transportation directly criticizes your company, along with thousands of wronged customers, you must take dramatic action on a national scale.”

Beyond offering the frequent flyer compensation and recently announced select cheap flight options ($49, one-way) Southwest needs to explain, in detail, what is happening to prevent the recurrence of the problem, D’Angelo said. “What investments and changes are being made? What’s the timetable? When and where will updates occur? What will success ultimately look like? Keep the CEO out in front, speaking plainly.”

The best way for Southwest to begin rebuilding consumers' faith and trust is to "focus on building an approach to customer service that is empathetic and solution-oriented that doesn’t leave consumers in the dark,” said Jennifer Shambroom, Clickatell CMO. 

Related Article: The Intersection of Public Relations and Customer Experience

Rehabilitate Reputation on Social Media

“Southwest took a beating on social media, and they need to immediately rehabilitate its reputation on those platforms,” said Susan Mackasey, founder and lead PR consultant of Mackasey Howard Communications. Southwest can do this by dedicating more resources to respond to the negative publicity, as well as communicating proactively with its followers to address what happened and offer remediation.

Though the airline’s reputation on social media and elsewhere took a beating as a result of the canceled flights, previously Southwest had a very good reputation with customers, something it should leverage again, Mackasey added. “They should be able to return to their former status by making clear promises and delivering on them. Connecting with clients and prioritizing personalized service will be more important than ever. To that end, a public relations campaign that highlights their strengths and dedication to customer service will be important.”

Learning Opportunities

Related Article: Mastering Brand Reputation Management in the Social Media Age

Keep the Frontline Informed and Listen to Their Perspectives

Beyond communicating with passengers, Southwest executives need to remember to speak to too-often-neglected internal audiences such as employees and unions, as well as suppliers, so they’re in the know and act as advocates rather than critics, D’Angelo added. “Ultimately, the airline has a business process problem that spawned a public relations problem; fixing the former will remedy the latter," D'Angelo said.

Though they weren’t responsible for the software issue — or the weather — frontline employees will have the most customer interactions, so they need to be kept up-to-date and fully informed about any efforts the company is making to correct the technology issues as well as real-time information about any future service disruptions, according to Cris Grossmann, CEO of Beekeeper, a technology company with a focus on employee engagement.

“The vast majority of frontline teams are chronically disconnected from the rest of the businesses that they work for,” Grossmann said. “When frontline businesses ignore this disconnect, they lose: Employee engagement suffers, turnover spikes, they struggle to hire and retain workers, and they lose customers and revenue.”

Southwest needs to listen to the frontline workers that drive the business, Grossmann added. “They are the face of your business. They feel the consequence of disruptions personally: from extreme weather, to supply shortages, short staffing or system outages. A strong or poor customer experience has a direct effect on their day. This ‘boots on the ground’ perspective makes them a great source of insight for how the business can improve.”

Final Thoughts on Southwest's Reputation

Southwest’s reputation certainly took a hit recently, but other airlines have had issues with their reputations and CX, particularly when they removed passengers for not following protocols during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, industry consolidation and the pent-up travel demand has meant that flights have continued to be full. Any falloff tends to be temporary after CX suffers due to screw-ups like Southwest’s.

Yet passengers do have options to fly other carriers to many of Southwest’s destinations, and maintaining — or in this case, rebuilding CX is important, particularly when the government is calling for an investigation into issues. By following the suggestions above, Southwest can start rebuilding its reputation.