On a Southwest flight from Los Angeles to Atlanta last week, the aircraft's flaps malfunctioned, forcing the pilots to circle for about 20 minutes to decide how to proceed. Eventually, they landed faster than usual, causing the 737-700's brakes to overheat.
It was the kind of minor mechanical issue that happens every day at every airline. Passengers were not in danger, and other than a slight delay on the ground while waiting for the brakes to cool, there was little inconvenience.
I was on that flight, and thought little of it until the next day, when I received an email from Southwest. It explained what happened in surprising detail, and said, "Thank you for your patience during this delay, and I hope you will accept my sincere apologies for any uneasy feelings you may have had about the overall situation." The airline sent a $100 travel certificate.
It seemed odd the airline would send $100 to passengers for what amounted to a 45-minute delay. But it is standard practice, Southwest Chief Revenue Officer Andrew Watterson told me in a series of messages. He said airline travel is a repeat purchase business, and noted $100 isn't much to keep a customer loyal — even if that passenger flies only once a year. "Keeping customers coming back is far cheaper than acquiring new ones," he said. "But we do both."
These emails come from what Southwest calls its proactive customer service team. Team members follow problems with flights, and try to keep passengers updated, Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins said. After a medical emergency, he said, the team's email might say, "We're happy to let you know the gentleman paramedics transported via ambulance is doing well."
Most airlines have teams handling customer service issues, but this group seems more engaged than most. And if agents are handing out vouchers daily to customers that might not even have complaints, it must get expensive quickly. With 143 seats on the plane, this standard mechanical problem might cost Southwest as much as $14,300 in future revenue.
What do you think? Should airlines reach out to customers so soon? Or is it better for an airline to wait until it receives complaints to send vouchers?
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