Dominick Reuter | AFP | Getty Images
A Southwest Airlines jet sits on the runway at Philadelphia International Airport after it was forced to land with an engine failure, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on April 17, 2018.
In the aftermath of Southwest Flight 1380, the Dallas-based airline responded by reportedly handing out $5,000 checks to passengers on the plane. The move took some by surprise.
“Initially, the instinct is to kind of circle the wagons and wait for the lawyers to do what the lawyers are going to do,” Mike Davis, senior lecturer at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business, said about what companies do in the aftermath of tragic events.
“When accidents have happened, the airlines have moved very quickly to try and help survivors with transportation or counseling or stuff like that,” he added. “But, writing a check like that is quite surprising.”
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Southwest Airlines Co. (NYSE: LUV) was rocked one week ago when shrapnel from a failed engine blew out a window and killed passenger Jennifer Riordan, who was sitting next to window.
When an event like this happens, the public immediately wants to know who is to blame. Was it Southwest? Was it Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA), the maker of the aircraft? Or was it CFM International, the joint venture between General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE) and French aerospace company Safran SA, who made the engine?
“They do seem, to me, remarkably sincere and also not instantly defensive,” Davis said of Southwest. “My perspective was that they felt, ‘This is terrible and we’re going to make it better however we can,’ and not, ‘Hey this is terrible, but it wasn’t our fault.'”
If it had been another airline, the public’s reaction might have been different. In the last year, United Continental Holdings (NYSE: UAL) has dealt with two public relations nightmares when a man was dragged off a plane last April and a dog died in an overhead luggage bin in March.
Southwest has a strong reputation. Even though deaths on U.S. commercial airlines are rare — this was the first one since 2009 — it was Southwest’s first ever fatality onboard one of its flights. Earlier in the month, Southwest was named the best airline in North America by TripAdvisor, and No. 6 in the world.
Plus, airline travel is seen as safe. The public reaction to the self-driving Uber car in Arizona that killed a pedestrian or the Tesla automobile driver who died after engaging the car’s autopilot functions were much different because people inherently mistrust self-driving cars, Davis said.
“People are asking bigger questions about whether Tesla is safe or Uber’s self-driving cars are safe,” Davis said. “Nobody’s asking the question, I think, whether Southwest Airlines is safe.”