Southwest’s ‘Why’ Fail

How Southwest Airlines forgot about its higher purpose at a critical time. 

It sucks when a brand you love lets you down. It’s like when you find out an athlete you’ve rooted for all your life cheated. You feel like a schmuck for saying how great they were. That’s what happened to me last week when Southwest Airlines rescheduled my spring break flight.

We left our driveway at 7:30 AM on Saturday, April 2, for a 1:30 PM flight out of Midway in Chicago to Pensacola. We got a text from Southwest around 9 AM letting us know our flight was delayed two hours. That wasn’t the end of the world. Then, we got another text 10 minutes later saying it was rescheduled until Monday. That was a problem. After holding for 20 minutes before we got hung up on, we were able to cancel our flight through their app and get our points back. Then, we turned the car south and drove 15 hours to Pensacola Beach. Instead of getting there at 2 PM like we planned when we booked the flight four months ago, we rolled in at 10:30 PM. We missed watching the Final Four on TV and ended up with 1,900 more miles on my car, but we still had a great vacation. 

We weren’t the only ones that had our travel plans disrupted. Last Saturday during the height of spring break travel, Southwest, the nation’s largest domestic carrier, canceled 520 flights and had 1,512 delays, according to FlightAware and CNBC. About 400 flights were canceled the following day and another 900 were delayed. The airline had briefly paused departures early in the day to perform checks on a backend system, used for tasks like pre-departure paperwork, that it had reset as part of regular maintenance overnight. Who schedules maintenance over a busy travel weekend?

It wasn’t the fact that our flight changed that bummed me out, or even that we had to drive to Florida instead of flying. It was that Southwest fell short of delivering on their ‘Why’. Coined by Simon Sinek in his famous TED Talk, a ‘Why statement’ is “the compelling higher purpose that inspires us and acts as the source of all we do.” It’s the focal point that great brands are built upon.

Southwest has an amazing brand. They’re known for legendary customer service. They do things with style. Their advertising has a sense of humor. Their flight attendants have fun. Their Why is to “connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly air travel.”

I’ve used this story in presentations to illustrate how important Southwest’s Why is to the airline:

One woman who frequently flew on Southwest was constantly disappointed with every aspect of the company’s operation. In fact, she became known as the “Pen Pal” because after every flight she wrote in with a complaint.

She didn’t like the fact that the company didn’t assign seats; she didn’t like the absence of a first-class section; she didn’t like not having a meal in flight; she didn’t like Southwest’s boarding procedure; she didn’t like the flight attendants’ sporty uniforms and the casual atmosphere.

Her last letter, reciting a litany of complaints, momentarily stumped Southwest’s customer relations people. They bumped it up to Herb’s (Kelleher, CEO of Southwest) desk, with a note: ‘This one’s yours.’

In sixty seconds, Kelleher wrote back and said, ‘Dear Mrs. Crabapple, We will miss you. Love, Herb.’”

How can an airline that cares so much about their style of friendly air travel that they’re willing to lose a customer over it, respond to the worst airline delay in recent memory with a message buried halfway down its homepage and a tweet that sounds like it was written by a lawyer? 


Southwest waived fare differences for affected customers so they could rebook themselves online without waiting on the phone. Gee, thanks. How about a sincere apology and giving customers something that actually matters? Try this on for size:

“We messed up. Instead of making excuses, we’re giving everyone affected by our mistake a travel voucher of equal value for the inconvenience. We know that doesn’t make up for not being able to get through to our customer service line, for missing your flight, starting your vacation late, making it to your condo or hotel after you planned, but hopefully, it shows that we’re genuinely sorry.”

Great brands hold themselves to the same high standard with every interaction. They remember why they exist. Southwest failed last week. I’m not abandoning ship. I’ll still fly Southwest. I hope they do better next time. Otherwise, I might not be quite as forgiving. I suspect there are a few thousand other people that feel the same way.

Jason is a Partner and the CEO at Revel, a B2B marketing agency. He is a diehard baseball fan who loves his Detroit Tigers. Family vacations often revolve around seeing games in different MLB ballparks around the country – they’ve been to 21 so far and counting. Connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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