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A Hole In Southwest’s Image?

By Marissa Stabler

I boarded the plane for my last trip to Dallas before my big post-graduation move (road-trip style) next month. Two energetic flight attendants made colorful remarks over the PA system. I took to my iPhone and tweeted how I would miss Southwest’s friendly customer service.

As the airplane ascended, I calmly read April’s issue of Spirit Magazine  (by the way, I never realized what an impact eggs have had on cultures), blissfully unaware that a Southwest jet had made an emergency landing less than an hour earlier  in Yuma, Ariz.

On April 1, a gaping 5-foot hole ruptured in the roof of Southwest Airlines Flight 812 sucking out breathable oxygen, when the plane suffered an explosive decompression at 34,000 feet. The pilots made a rapid descent to a lower altitude with breathable air, and eventually made a safe landing. There were no reported customer injuries. A flight attendant, however, suffered a minor injury.

Southwest responded by grounding 79 Boeing 737-300 airplanes (like Flight 812) for inspection within seven hours of the incident.

“I was not going to fly those airplanes until we understood better why that happened or did an inspection to assure ourselves we didn’t have other airplanes with that [problem],” Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said. “My main concern was safety and customer service.”

Southwest issued a public statement within an hour after the plane landed in Yuma, and communicated with passengers via email and text messages, informing them whether their flights had been canceled over the weekend due to the groundings. The airline also kept customers informed through its Facebook page, Twitter and corporate blog several times a day as new information became available.

So, the question is, will the “hole incident” cause lasting harm to Southwest Airlines’ image?

Probably not.

Just like the hole in the roof of its aircraft, any damage to Southwest’s image will likely be repaired quickly on account of the airline’s swift handling of the situation and its favorable reputation.

“There was nothing Southwest failed to do or did improperly,” said Robert Mann Jr., an aviation consultant in Port Washington, N.Y. “This was something no one had seen before.”

Industry analysts say the airline has a solid overall maintenance program, and Southwest has maintained an outstanding safety record with no in-flight fatalities.

Above all, Southwest’s image will survive the incident because it has built a reputation as an airline that cares. The carrier is well-known for its low fares and warm customer service. Where else are you going to get endless Diet Cokes and salted peanuts, and have information serenaded to you in-flight — all for one of the cheapest air fares available?

Customer care is absolute in Southwest’s mission: dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit.

This customer service has even flown into the realm of social media. Last month, TIME picked the 140 Best Twitter Feeds. Southwest (@southwestair) was deemed as “one of the few airlines getting it right on Twitter” (JetBlue also made the cut) for its interactive tweets that do an “admirable job helping road warriors do everything from rebook a flight to locate their frequent-flyer rewards.”

“Unless something else happens, [the incident] will be forgotten pretty quickly,” aviation consultant Michael Boyd said. “Southwest has too much of a reputation as an airline that takes care of people.”

Boyd appears to be right. Less than a month after Flight 812 made its emergency landing, Southwest customers took to the carrier’s Facebook page and expressed their gratitude for being an airline that goes the extra mile.

Without a word of complaint — Southwest, you go and top yourself — sending out a LUV voucher just cause we were stuck on the tarmac for a bit of time … and not because of anything you really did — just the silly storm. That’s what I call customer service. Thanks!!!

I ♥ you guys. I had my first Southwest experience this week and it was fantastic. Never did I think I could come to love an airline. Keep it up!

Southwest has the best customer service ever. We were three hours delayed out of LAX yesterday and wouldn’t make it back home because we’d miss our connecting flight. We’d have to spend the time at the Houston Airport (me and my two youngest daughters). William O. at the desk at LAX worked with me and routed me through St. Louis, where… we could stay with family overnight. He worked magic to get us on a full direct flight leaving in 30 minutes and then got us out of a direct flight out of St. Louis. We even got to have dinner with my parents last night. Yeah SW. It could have been a disaster, but it was a nice “extra” vacation day instead.

When I boarded my Southwest flight four days after the hole, I was just as calm as I was when I read “Which Came First?” (the chicken or the egg), partially because of the completed safety inspections, and partially because of the stand-up comedian/peanut provider/flight attendant manning the PA system.

Also published on PROpenMic.

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