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Southwest Airlines announced a four-day sale this week that drops some one-way fares as low as $49.
The discounts promote cheap, domestic flights for summer travel, with the special prices increasing to $79, $99 and $149. Still, even as May temperatures rise and travelers look ahead to a poolside getaway, the sale may not only be timed to the seasons.
One month after the airline’s first passenger fatality in Southwest’s 51-year history, can the promotion also win back customers?
On April 17, one passenger died and seven others were injured after an engine on Southwest flight 1380 blew apart and forced the plane to make an emergency landing. The incident marked the first passenger fatality on a U.S. carrier since 2009.
Nine days later, Southwest President Thomas Nealon said in an earnings call that the company was predicting lost revenue — 1 to 2 percent in revenue per available seat mile –in the coming quarter, in part because of the April 17 flight.
“As we noted on our recent earnings call, we saw an impact to our bookings following flight #1380,” Southwest spokeswoman Thais Hanson said in a statement. “With this sale we go back into the market with full marketing efforts for the first time since flight #1380 and are giving our direct distribution model a boost in order to stimulate bookings to our website.”
The deals also come on the heels of other mid-air scares on Southwest flights in the past few weeks. On Saturday, a plane made an emergency landing in Dallas after a “pressurization event.” And on May 2, a Southwest flight bound for Newark landed in Cleveland after a window cracked on board.
Susan Donofrio, senior airline analyst at Macquarie Group, said the summer sale is one component of Southwest’s two-pronged approach. The company — known for its fun and engaging advertisements — has pulled back its marketing since the April accident. Only in the past few days did Southwest begin reintroducing commercials and ads, she said. (Macquarie Group is an investment company that in the past year has done work for Southwest Airlines.)
“They’ve really tried to be sensitive to the situation,” Donofrio said.
For any airline, the priority after an accident is to ensure passenger safety, Donofrio said. Once passengers regain a level of comfort, companies can focus on promoting specific services. Donofrio noted that after Southwest’s emergency landing last month, the company has cooperated with the federal authorities investigating the event.
Southwest’s sale runs through May 18, and with it comes the fine print: Tickets must be purchased at least 21 days in advance and only apply from June 5 through Oct. 31. The deal is for domestic flights only on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Up to two bags fly free.
Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communication at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, said Southwest is well-positioned to bounce back from the accident given its strong reputation among passengers. Argenti compared Southwest’s engine failure to multiple incidents on United Airlines, from the passenger who was yanked out of his seat and dragged down the aisle to the a slew of pet-related mishaps.
“It starts with the reputation of the airline beforehand,” Argenti said.
Airlines are particularly equipped to deal with accidents, Argenti added, unlike companies faced with “black swan events” that can be difficult to prepare for. For airlines, “predictable surprises” have made them better than any other type of company at responding to disaster, Argenti said.
Argenti pointed to a Sichuan Airlines flight on Monday in which a cockpit windshield blew out and the co-pilot was sucked halfway out of the plane. Widespread coverage of the accident pointed to Southwest’s accident from one month before, which Argenti said could have posed a temporary glitch to the company’s careful plans to sell itself to customers once again.
“You let an appropriate amount of time go by,” Argenti said, “and then try to come back.”
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