The brand crisis

“One dead after Southwest plane engine blows; woman nearly sucked out(AP, 2018)”

This was the headline that came out from the Associated Press on the morning of April 17, 2018. As the story unfolded, it became clear that a Southwest Airlines 737 had a catastrophic engine failure at 32,500 feet, forcing it to perform an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport. In addition to injuries, one passenger; Jennifer Riordan of Albuquerque, New Mexico died from trauma that occured when she was sucked halfway out of a hole in the fuselage.

This accident broke a string of 8 years for Southwest Airlines not having an incident involving a fatality. As with any incident, there was quite a bit of speculation regarding what caused the mishap. Was it negligence? Was it an act of god? All these questions swirled around as the authorities promised an in-depth investigation.

The response

The first response from the company came quickly, even as passengers and crew were being evacuated from the aircraft and on ground transport to the terminal at Philadelphia. The statement was simple, to the point, and promised further information in short order. This statement issued at 11:00am read; “We are aware that Southwest flight #1380 from New York Laguardia (LGA) to Dallas Love Field (DAL) has diverted to Philadelphia International Airport (PHL).  We are in the process of transporting Customers and Crew into the terminal. The aircraft, a Boeing 737-700, has 143 Customers and five Crew Members onboard. We are in the process of gathering more information. Safety is always our top priority at Southwest Airlines, and we are working diligently to support our Customers and Crews at this time(2018)”.

This statement was followed by a second, more in-depth one roughly 4 hours later that acknowledged the death of Ms. Riordan, and more details regarding what had happened. The statement also offered sympathies for those affected by the incident. Additionally, a video was released of the CEO, Gary Kelly addressing the incident, in a somber and conciliatory tone.

In addition to these statements, two more were issued within the next 24 hours. The first one promising an expedited inspection of the engine to determine causation, and one outlining the pilot and crews extraordinary efforts in getting the plane on the ground without further casualties or damage.

In addressing the initial crisis response, Media Relations Director, Anthony DeAngelo posits; “Good crisis response happens long before a disaster or a death; there’s no time for planning after a crisis, only action,Southwest showed it was prepared. Their response was fast, set the right tone and put the right people out front to address the issue(2018)”.

In the next few days, Southwest issued each passenger a check for $5000 and a voucher in the amount of $1000 towards future travel. Additionally, the company was active on social media monitoring and providing responses when able to.

One factor in this crisis that is noteworthy, but not necessarily part of the planned response is the skill and poise showed by the aircraft’s captain, Tammy-Jo Shults and her first officer, Darren Ellisor. In the ensuing weeks, the media used terms like hero to describe the captain’s efforts in getting the aircraft on the ground without further incident. What’s more, Ms. Shults and her crew were the topic of a number of media features and perhaps shed some positive light on a horrible tragedy. Essentially, it could have been quite a bit worse if not for the skill of the crew.

Some armchair quarterbacking

With most crisis responses, as grad students we are afforded the opportunity to homes our skills on the hindsight of the communications teams’ actions post incident. With this incident, a simple Google search will yield quite a bit of praise for Southwest and its response. In fact, I’m sure that this crisis will be used as a case study in how it’s done correctly. In fact, according to Jack Frieberg who wrote a book on Southwest airlines states; “This is a company that will embrace the tragedy and do everything in their power to love on these people, to help support the healing and renewed wellness of these people. And not just the people that were on that flight(2018)”.

In fact, in performing my research for this post, even with my cynics hat on, I couldn’t find anything done necessarily wrong by the airline in their crisis response. Of course, no matter how well played the response and companies actions are there will still be a crisis of trust in the airline that will only heal with time.

Realistically, the only thing I would have done differently is not give the passengers vouchers for future flights. To me it’s a “too soon” kinda thing.


Southwest Airlines Media Room. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.swamedia.com/releases

Arenstein, S. (2018, April 18). How Southwest Communicated News and Empathy in the Aftermath of Flight 1380. Retrieved from https://www.prnewsonline.com/prnewsblog/how-southwest-communicated-news-and-empathy-in-the-aftermath-of-flight-1380/

Joffe, J. (2018, June 06). How Southwest Leads With Social During Crises. Retrieved from https://www.prnewsonline.com/southwest-social-crises

One dead after Southwest plane engine blows; woman nearly sucked out. (2018, April 18). Retrieved from https://www.kxan.com/news/national-news/watch-live-engine-of-southwest-flight-reportedly-blows-up/1127190019

Southwest Airlines engine failure: Investigators are looking at engine wear and tear. (2018, April 18). Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-southwest-airlines-engine-20180418-story.html


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