Southwest Airlines just insulted unhappy customers in a truly spectacular way

There's a way to communicate apologies. Then there's this.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer
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It's all back to normal for Southwest Airlines.

Well, except for those pesky FAA computers going down for a few hours, which stopped Southwest from flying any domestic planes at all.

But at least this wasn't Southwest's fault. 

Unlike, for example, the spectacular Christmas meltdown that stranded hundreds of thousands of passengers all over America.

Fail, then sale

Southwest was slow to utter even the slightest mea culpa. The airline blamed the weather before it even admitted its own software-buying decisions might have something to do with the mess.

But as Southwest has floated back toward a regular service, it's begun to offer penance. Yes, it's going to refund passengers all "reasonable" expenses, leaving everyone to consider that Southwest's definition of "reasonable" might differ from their own.

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The airline has also given customers some free frequent flyer points to make them feel better about daring to fly Southwest again. I even received an email from Southwest this week that announced: "Big Sale, itty bitty fares."

I wonder whether any customers were ittily bittily annoyed by the enticement of $49 flights from an airline that has so let them down.

Please, though, let's not forget Southwest's employees. The airline gave them $400 worth of bonus points to compensate for the "physical and emotional toll" of a mess caused by management's refusal to invest in crew scheduling software from this century.

About those employees. Last week, Southwest's pilots offered blistering criticism of their bosses.

They suggested the software problems were well known and that it had all been caused because Southwest is "an operational flying and customer service company with the top three positions occupied by three holders of bachelor's degrees in accounting from the University of Texas."

If Southwest is just another airline run by accountants, then these sorts of things are going to happen -- because, too often, accountants tend to have the greatest affection for cost-saving and their own bonuses.

Change? Why would we do that?

You might think, then, that the bosses at Southwest would react with (at least some semblance of) radical change.

You might also think worms eat giraffes.

Because in an announcement that flirts with humor and attempts to defy it, the airline this week promoted five of its senior executives to even more senior roles.

Why, the vice president of Network Planning, Adam Decaire, was promoted to senior vice president of Network Planning and Network Operations Control. He's going to need a wider business card, isn't he? And please don't worry, he went to Ohio State and didn't study accountancy.

Then there was Tony Roach. He was promoted from vice president of Customer Experience & Engagement to senior vice president of Marketing & Customer Experience. He's going to have some fun over the next few months. And no, he didn't go to the University of Texas. His alma mater is Abilene Christian University. 

All hail, too, Whitney Eichinger, ascending from vice president of Culture & Engagement to senior vice president of Culture & Communications. She was at TCU and, oh, the University of Texas. But wait, it's OK. She studied "communications, journalism, and related programs."

Then there's Jeff Novota, rising from associate general counsel to vice president of Legal-Corporate and Transactions. He can't possibly be a Texas accountant. Goodness, no. He went to Purdue and Indiana and actually studied aviation technology for a while.

Finally, there's Dave Harvey, soaring from vice president of Southwest Business to vice president and chief sales officer. He went to, ah, oh, the University of Texas in Dallas and, ach, the University of Texas in Austin.

And we were doing so well, weren't we?

Business as usual, right?

I feel entirely sure these are extremely competent people. By my rough calculations they have, between them, a total of 100 years working for Southwest. But is that actually a good thing? Or does it reflect the pilots' view that Southwest management is a rather closed cabal?

So now, dear Southwest customer, you must decide how you feel. Is it really a good look to react to an act of utter incompetence by promoting five longtime executives in the aftermath?

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Is the message, perhaps, that Southwest believes it's actually a very fine airline and nothing will really change? Is the message even that nothing really should change, aside from maybe, possibly a little investment in crew-scheduling software?

Might you be slightly skeptical when Southwest insists these promotions "will strengthen our operational execution and better serve our People and Customers"?

Might you have read the pilots' views that having too many like-minded "yes-men and yes-women" is "a recipe for operational ignorance and collective groupthink. A monetization of the once vaunted Southwest culture and instead turning it into a headquarters-centric cult. A good old boys and girls network indeed"?

It does seem as if Southwest believes this will all blow over quickly because it has such a strong brand, all built upon the idea of people-love, fostered in countless ads and promulgated by happy, humorous flight attendants.

Is that something like Apple's reality distortion field?

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