Southwest Airlines Just Made a Controversial Decision, and Passengers Can’t Decide How to Feel

The tweet from Southwest Airlines stopped me in my tracks, and I found myself caught between two reactions:

  • The fun, happy, yes-this-was-a-good-idea response that the Southwest Airlines passengers in the photo Southwest tweeted seemed to have.
  • The shocked, surprised, not-no-but-heck-no reaction that a lot of folks on Twitter — some of them Southwest passengers, I suppose (I mean, who among us doesn’t fly Southwest sometimes?) — expressed vocally.

Here’s the background: Southwest passengers on a flight from Long Beach, California to Honolulu got a surprise when they boarded the plane this week, in that Southwest had teamed up with Guitar Center to give every single passenger a ukulele, along with a 20-minute, airborne lesson on how to play it.

I don’t know that this disclsore was quite a circa-2017 “what color is this dress?” level of controversy, but it prompted intense and varied responses. As an example, check out this headline from the flight attendant website, Paddle Your Own Kanoo

Actually, I loved a one-word response to that last tweet about not being able to think of anything worse: “Recorders.” (Yes, I agree. That would be worse.)

Anyway, I come to laugh a bit at Southwest’s expense, and learn a lesson or two, but not to bury it. And, I think we can point to three simple reasons why this was a good idea, all things considered.

  • First, remember this was a flight on a low cost carrier traveling from California to Hawaii. It was almost certainly full of either vacationers or people who live in Hawaii heading home after a trip to the mainland. In other words, it would be a very different scenario to try to do this on, say, a flight from Chicago to New York.
  • Second, it’s Southwest. I’ve written many times before about how Southwest Airlines has built a big advantage out of its irreverent attitude, including singing flight attendants and jokes. Again, the stunt simply fits the feeling of a Southwest flight; you wouldn’t do this in a business class cabin on another airline, even traveling a similar route.
  • Third, think about the news we’ve seen regarding passenger behavior on other flights recently: for example, the American Airlines passenger who was seen on video assaulting a flight attendant this week (and wound up facing federal charges that theoretically carry a maximum of 20 years in prison.) Juxtapose that last point against the Southwest Airlines ukulele story, and you can see good reason to want to lighten the mood in air travel these days.

I think even Southwest Airlines recognizes how this could have gone wrong; for example, just looking at the fact that the airline tweeted its story about the ukulele giveaway at 2 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday, but then rushed back to clarify that passengers were asked to put their ukuleles away after the 20-minute lesson.

Which leads to more questions:

  • Did they comply?
  • Was it nevertheless the longest 20 minutes some of the passengers ever endured?
  • Can you actually learn to play that quickly, anyway, and if so why didn’t we all do it during elementary school instead of messing around with the aforementioned recorders?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I do know this: No matter what business you’re in, it’s worth following the airline industry.

As I write in my free ebook, Flying Business Class: 12 Rules for Leaders From the U.S. Airlines, I can think of no other industry in which every move is dissected so minutely, and the lessons become so clear.

Today’s lessons? Know yourself, know your customers, and know how they feel about you. Get that right, and you’ll be making beautiful music together.

I asked Southwest Airlines for comment, here’s how the airline officially described the whole event in a prepared statement:

In partnership with Guitar Center, Southwest surprised Customers onboard a Long Beach-Honolulu (Oahu) flight with a Mitchell MU40 Soprano ukulele, a Road Runner gig bag, and a lesson to play “Hello, Aloha. How are you?” 

The ukuleles were placed in each seat for Customers, and they were stowed after boarding. After departure and the first round of inflight drink and snack service, Guitar Center lessons instructors encouraged Customers to retrieve their ukuleles from under the seats in front of them and the overhead bins to participate in the ukulele lesson, which lasted about 20 minutes. 

Once the lesson was complete, Customers re-stowed their ukuleles and musician Aryyzona performed an original song on her ukulele to wrap up the activation. The lighthearted, fun event was well-received by the Customers and Crew onboard.

When the aircraft landed in Honolulu, Southwest Employees greeted the Customers with welcome signs, and Guitar Center offered to ship the ukuleles back to our Customers’ homes free of charge.   

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