The Squeaky Wheel: Social Media, Kevin Smith and Southwest Airlines

By | February 15, 2010
SAN FRANCISCO - JANUARY 21: Southwest Airlines...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

It is very hard to write these sort of posts. We hope this will be our last comment on the subject.

When confronted with being called a Customer of Size, Kevin Smith complained. He was within his rights to do so, and anyone who feels wrongly singled out should.

After he was taken off the plane, a representative of Southwest Airlines immediately promised that they would investigate this, A second representative, their Twitter rep, promised action. Mr. Smith did not accept that a large corporation would immediately contact him to apologize for displeasing him, regardless of the circumstances. Southwest Airlines has a well developed social media program…and does. Many believe the only reason they did so was because he is a celebrity. He is, and being so, he admits he can make a lot of noise. That noises leads to quicker responses. But is that the right thing to do?

It is often said that if more people complained about policies, those policies can be changed. On some level, we admire people who stick to their principles and think more people should. The squeaky wheel may get the grease, but should the wheel exercise moderate its squeakiness with a sense of understanding and politeness, the same traits that they expect from those they are squeaking at.

Mr. Smith had a bad experience with an airline. Plenty of people do. Before this experience, he regularly flew on Southwest, which implies he was, up until this point, happy with them. Why does one experience amidst many get a company compared to Hitler? Even if we accept that everyone he encountered during his travels was, as he described them, and that the airline is full of disinterested and apathetic people, that is condemning tens of thousands of employees who complete 3100 daily departures each day at an airline with traditionally high marks for customer service. They have a loyal following, and transport over 100 million passengers they transport each year, and hopefully the bulk of them are satisfied.

That said, it is not an excuse for Southwest’s behavior. They shouldn’t have let the situation get to the point it did, of him actually being on the plane instead of discussing this beforehand. But more importantly, they failed to provide a good experience for their passenger. It doesn’t matter if that passenger is Kevin Smith the famous guy, or John Smith the accountant from Dubuque. They admit they could have handled this situation differently. He certainly could have handled it differently as well, in its aftermath.

If we are to believe Southwest’s Linda Rutherford, who spoke to Kevin Smith on the issue, Southwest Airlines will hopefully do what it is they promised, and what we said they should do: Reviewing how they implement this policy in the future. Because the policy isn’t going away, the seats aren’t getting bigger, and we as a nation are. Anyone who says that Southwest Airlines should lead the way in removing seats off the plane hasn’t seen the balance sheet for the industry. Much as we want them to add more space, airlines are not doing wonderfully even with the space they have.

For Southwest and any other airline that has such a policy, the clearer they can make it, the less this issue will become apparent. They will review, but like many companies, we never get to hear the results of these reviews. We hope Southwest will react with openness and disclose any decisions they make in order to satisfy the public.

Social media has created a situation where there is a direct and public dialogue between a company representative and its public that can be viewed by anyone. Christi Day, the voice of Southwest on Twitter, has always been very responsive. They use social media to build closer relationships with their passengers.

We try to act in a fair manner and look for the opposing side of the story. If people feel we have been unfair, we permit comments and only remove ones we think are SPAM or abusive speech. We defend airlines for tough decisions and criticize them when they do things in what we feel is an unfair manner. We never meant to suggest, as some people believed after our last post, that we feel Kevin Smith is a liar. We feel Kevin Smith’s decision to respond in the manner he did was inappropriate, and will say so. Feel free to disagree.

Airlines owe you transport in a courteous, consistent, and fair manner. What do we expect from them? And are our expectations realistic?