Are We There Yet?

By Dr. Kathie R. Fleck, APR

In March, airlines and governments worldwide grounded the Boeing 737 MAX 8 after two crashed within five months, killing 346 people. In the U.S., only three airlines were flying the 737 Max 8 when the planes were grounded – Southwest, American, and United Airlines. I happen to be a frequent flier with Southwest Airlines and American Airlines, and as a crisis communicator the two airlines responses caught my attention.

The same day the FAA formally grounded the planes, I received an email from the CEO of Southwest Airlines and one day later I received an email from American Airlines. Nearly one month later, I received another set of emails – this time from the CEO of Southwest and the CEO of American. The two sets of emails were interesting in what each said and didn’t say.

Not to go all academic on you, but there is a theory that explains how organizations should respond in a crisis. It’s called Situational Crisis Communication Theory or SCCT for short. SCCT says organizations must properly match its response to a crisis with the amount of “blame” its target audience will attribute to them. In this case, Boeing would choose a different type of response than the airlines because most of us hold Boeing directly accountable for building and selling deficient planes. However more indirectly, the airlines will also be held accountable for buying and operating the planes and for the lack of service (i.e., canceled flights, lack of routes, etc.) as a result of the grounding.

The initial email from Southwest explained the situation, then quickly reminded customers of Southwest’s commitment to safety. CEO Tom Nealon said,

“Safety is our top priority. It always has been. It always must be. Our commitment to the safety of our employees and our customers is unwavering and uncompromising.”

Southwest waits until the last paragraph to address the inconvenience to the traveling public saying,

“I realize this disruption may inconvenience our Customers during this busy spring travel season, and we will do everything in our power to mitigate the impact to our operation. For that, I offer my sincere apologies. To support our customers, we are offering flexible rebooking policies for any customer booked on a cancelled flight.”

The response from American was different. In it, American too explains the situation up front but then chooses to discuss how they are working to mitigate the impact to the customer saying,

“Teams throughout the airline have been working tirelessly to minimize the impact to you, our customers. We appreciate your patience and understanding with us during this busy travel period, and we apologize for the inconvenience this may cause.”

It wasn’t until the end that American directly addresses safety saying,

“Be assured the safety and security of our customers and team members is always our top priority and we will never operate an unsafe aircraft.”

Why the difference?

One month before grounding, the FAA sent a letter (covered extensively in the media) to Southwest regarding an ongoing dispute between the airline and its mechanic’s union. Ali Bahrami, associate administrator for aviation safety at the FFA wrote,

“The FAA cautions that a breakdown in the relationship between Southwest and AMFA (Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association) raises concern about the ongoing effectiveness of the airline’s safety management system.”

And, let’s not forget only a few months before this, a passenger on a Dallas-bound Southwest flight died when she was sucked into a hole left by a shattered window. The window was shattered by an engine fan blade that broke off.

Southwest’s safety record was under assault. And, because the airline nearly exclusively flies Boeing planes, the company had to take on safety as its primary message to customers. As SCCT would say – that is the place where customers would assign blame.

However, Southwest enjoys top ratings by the flying public. It is regularly rated at or near the top of the list of favorite U.S. airlines. Conversely, American is regularly rated at the bottom or bottom half on most service ranking indexes. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s most recent Air Travel Consumer Report ranked American 7 out of 10 with only a 77% on-time record in 2018.

American’s choice to focus on service makes sense according to SCCT. Customer’s already wary of booking an American Airline flight may be even more reticent of booking when additional planes have been taken out of its fleet. It’s primary audience needed to know American was paying close attention to service.

Follow-up emails from both airlines reflected the airlines initial communication in both content and priorities. According to SCCT, the organizations have responded appropriately by determining existing weak spots with its target audiences. Both also are taking advantage of the opportunity to remediate what it can during the ongoing situation.

The FAA and Boeing have indicated the 737 Max 8 may be returned to service soon. If so, both Southwest and American will need to address customers about plans to return the plane to service in the respective fleets. The crisis isn’t over – the traveling public will continue to have concerns about the safety of the plane even after the FAA says it’s safe. As such, the airlines will need to continue proactively communicating to reassure customers.

Communicators in all industries should closely watch how this crisis continues to evolve. As former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel once famously said, “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” A good crisis response is one to emulate and a bad one is important to learn from and to take notes. I will keep watching how this plays out, will you?


Dr. Kathie R. Fleck, APR is an associate professor in public relations at Ohio Northern University.