A Baltimore college professor has become the latest airline passenger to get into a struggle with authorities after being ordered off a commercial flight – and the ordeal once again getting captured on a widely-viewed cellphone video. The industry practice toward passengers continues to generate controversy, but crisis management specialists said that in this most recent example Southwest Airlines issued a prompt, apologetic statement.
The passenger, Anila Daulatzai, 46, is a professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and has been a Visiting Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies and Islamic Studies at Harvard Divinity School and has studied the plight of war widows in Afghanistan. Maryland Transportation Authority Police grabbed her after she refused to leave the plane voluntarily. She asked that two dogs on the flight be removed, because, she said, she had a severe allergy to dogs, but officials said she failed to present a medical note, so the flight crew asked her to deplane instead, before it took off from Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
As the video shows, at least one police officer yelled at each other during an emotional struggle, and she claims the officer ripped her pants. You can also hear Southwest employees ordering passengers to put their phones away so they don’t record the incident. Most ignored that order. Eventually, she was arrested on several charges, including resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.
When asked about the incident and the company’s response, Cari Brunelle, founding partner of Baretz+Brunelle, which has an office in Washington, D.C., and who has advised individuals and organizations on high-profile matters, praised the airline for issuing the prompt apology.
“The sooner you can respond, the better you’re going to look,” Brunelle told SmartCEO when asked about some lessons that other companies can learn from Southwest’s experience.
In its statement, Southwest said it was “disheartened by the way this situation unfolded and the Customer’s removal by local law enforcement officers.”
“We publicly offer our apologies to this Customer for her experience and we will be contacting her directly to address her concerns. Southwest Airlines was built on Customer Service, and it is always our goal for all Customers to have a positive experience,” the statement adds.
Brunelle also contrasted the Southwest response with that of United Airlines, when earlier this year, a physician was injured as he was dragged from his seat and down the aisle by security officers after he refused to give up his seat to an airline employee on an overbooked flight. A video of that incident also went viral.
United’s apology was “too little, too late,” Brunelle said. In fact, the United incident appears to have gotten embedded in the public’s mind to such an extent that Brunelle saw a news headline on the Southwest experience that read in part, “Southwest Just Went All United….”
Christopher Kayes, chairman of the Department of Management at the George Washington University School of Business, agrees that a company responding to an incident “should act swiftly as Southwest did.”
“They [Southwest] took responsibility and expressed empathy for the passengers, they also stated their company values,” he told SmartCEO. “But most important, they didn’t make any statements about either the passenger’s actions or comment on the specifics of the incident. It’s key that an organization conduct a full review of the incident before making any judgements.”
In the statement, Southwest simply summarized in general terms what took place on the plane, saying it was based on “initial reports.”
Both Kayes and Brunelle both praised Southwest for even releasing a statement, adding that it is unwise for a company to remain silent in such an incident – because the news media will report on it, and the video, if there is one, can get viewed repeatedly.
“They’re going to tell the story with or without you,” Brunelle advised.
Southwest is not seen as having serious potential for long-term damage from the recent incident. “Over time, companies like Southwest have built up important goodwill with their customers,” Kayes said. “If the flying public feel that the company has taken the proper steps to either limit the possibility of similar events happening in the future or taken steps to remedy the particular situation, then customers seem to have short memories.”
However, such incidents – if severe enough — can seriously impact the public’s perception of a brand, Brunelle said. “It’s the perception that matters. Ultimately, it can destroy a brand.”
Brunelle also noted how in the case of Southwest, customer service is one of their priorities, and they mentioned that in the statement. She explains too that it does not matter that a third party, police officers, dragged the woman off the plane – not airline employees. “The reality is it happened on a Southwest plane,” Brunelle said.
On the other hand, United’s response was so questionable, that the airline took a “huge hit” in response, Brunelle said. “It’s going to take a long time [for United] to come back. It may never come back.”
In fact, United may have gotten lumped together with historic examples of how companies handled crises, which include: Johnson & Johnson, when someone was tampering with Tylenol, or Exxon, with the Valdez oil spill. “United is going to be in that small group,” Brunelle said.
It is also a reality today, with the widespread presence of cellphones, that witnesses may shoot a video of any incident. “You have to expect there’s going to be a video,” Brunelle said. “You have to be ready for that.”
Overall, companies need to prepare for these kind of incidents, whether an organization provides a product or service.
“You have to have a plan when things don’t go right,” Brunelle said, adding that it may include the input from representatives of a company’s human resources, information technology, general counsel, and marketing/media relations departments. The company should identify beforehand who it may need to contact externally, too. It is wise to notify board members promptly, too, about an incident. “The last thing you want is to have a board member read about it on a cellphone,” Brunelle said.
Kayes agrees that the “most prepared companies have crisis plans in place.”
“Some even go as far as to prepare responses to a potential crisis beforehand, mocking up websites, and conducting scenario planning exercises to be ready for various challenges before they arise,” he explained. “Of course, it’s also important to conduct training for leaders on how to handle crises. Leaders of companies that aren’t prepared can find that they have become the ‘public face’ of the crisis, and find that they don’t usually enjoy the limelight.”
“The recent incidents at United and Equifax [which had a well-publicized data breach] are examples of what happens when an unprepared CEO becomes the public face of a crisis,” Kayes said.