As just about everyone in the world knows by now, Southwest Airlines had an unprecedented meltdown a bit over a month ago, over the holidays. Tens of thousands of flights were canceled, over a million travelers were stranded, and this will end up costing the airline over $800 million.
What I find bizarre is how Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan is continuing to frame this incident. Let me be clear — personally I don’t think he’s directly to blame, or that he should resign because of this incident. He was at the job for less than a year, and this ultimately unfolded because Southwest Airlines underinvested in technology for a long time (perhaps because the airline was previously run by accountants).
Yet the way Jordan continues to communicate what happened leaves me puzzled. His interview with Axios is the latest example of that, though we’ve seen him parrot a similar narrative with all kinds of other outlets.
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Jordan denies the meltdown was a technology issue
Southwest Airlines’ CEO seems unwilling to admit that this meltdown happened due to technology, and he even calls that a misconception:
“I think the biggest misconception right away was that it was a technology issue. We tried to be really clear that while the technology got overwhelmed, it is not what caused this. It was a weather event that turned into a crew and aircraft routing network event, that then pushed the technology to a point that it couldn’t help us because it was having to solve [operational] problems that were already in the past — but it wasn’t a technology event.”
So it wasn’t a technology event… it was a weather event that became a crew and aircraft routing event, and that pushed the technology to the point that it no longer functioned how it needed to. Um… I think that’s what we ultimately call a technology event?
Of course there was weather, but ultimately what caused such a disastrous meltdown was the crew scheduling software’s inability to reschedule crews. Other major airlines have different crew scheduling software that did handle this situation much better.
Jordan insists the airline spends a lot of money on technology. I mean, let me just remind you that until 2017, Southwest wasn’t even capable of operating redeye flights or adjusting flight schedules day-to-day due to the technology it had. Sure, the airline has tens of billions of dollars in annual revenue, so obviously it spends “a lot” on technology. But I think it still falls within the “probably not enough” range.
Jordan wonders if communication could have been better
One of the worst aspects of Southwest’s meltdown was the complete lack of communication, especially early on. Part of what made this meltdown so horrible is that it was over the holidays, so travelers were stranded at airports over Christmas, with little guidance as to what they should do. Now Southwest Airlines’ CEO is wondering if the airline communicated well enough during the meltdown:
“You always wonder whether you communicated fast enough. We were very quick to communicate internally every single day, but I think ‘did we communicate externally, quickly enough?’ would be the ultimate question.”
Is he serious? It was days into the meltdown before we publicly heard a peep from Jordan, let alone anyone senior at Southwest Airlines. Southwest issued its first press release even acknowledging the issues on the evening of December 26, and Jordan didn’t release any sort of direct message until the evening of December 27.
Heck, on the afternoon of December 26 (days into the meltdown), the Southwest station director for Houston Hobby Airport sort of became the unofficial spokesperson for the airline, and held the first briefing we saw from the airline about what was going on.
He blamed Southwest’s meltdown on weather and flight crews not being where they needed to be. Which, I mean, that’s correct, but we all know the reason crews weren’t where they needed to be, which is the failure of Southwest’s crew scheduling technology (but let’s not call this a technology issue!).
It just seems tone deaf to a month later be wondering whether the communication could have been better. I mean, the airline was in full-on meltdown mode before Christmas, and there was nothing publicly from Jordan until the evening of December 27.
Southwest had a terrible meltdown over the holidays. I trust the airline will now make the investments it needs in order to avoid this ever happening again.
However, the communication from Southwest CEO Bob Jordan is anything but reassuring. Ironically he’s now arguing that “you’ve got to be transparent and not defensive, that builds trust.” And at the same time he’s claiming that this wasn’t a technology issue, and that he wonders if the airline could have communicated differently.
Am I the only one puzzled by this approach? He has been doing a media blitz and has consistently been saying the same thing, and I can’t help but feel like it just lacks humility. I’d feel much more reassured if he said “we screwed up big time in so many ways, and this is a big lesson for us.” But rather he seems to be justifying everything that happened in a way that doesn’t seem to reflect reality.
If the airline doesn’t want to take accountability more concretely for legal reasons then that’s fine, but then maybe don’t do a bunch of media where you claim that it’s so important to be transparent?
Can anyone make senses of the communication strategy of Southwest’s CEO here?