Southwest is praised for incident response

CEO heads team of top employees at scene in aftermath of airline's first fatal accident


CHICAGO -- Even though Thursday's incident at Midway Airport marked Southwest Airlines' first fatal accident in its 35-year history, the company offered a coordinated, polished response.

In a departure from reactions by other airlines involved in fatal accidents, Southwest Chief Executive Officer Gary C. Kelly expressed the airline's condolences for the accident within hours after one of the carrier's 737s over-ran a runway and skidded off airport grounds into a major street.

A 6-year-old boy died and at least 10 people were injured when Southwest Flight 1248 skidded into two cars on 55th Street at Central Avenue. The two streets form the northern and western boundary respectively of the airport.

"There are absolutely no words to accurately state our grief and our sorrow over this tragedy," Kelly said yesterday at the second of two news conferences.

He held the first news conference in Dallas, and the second on his arrival in Chicago.

Kelly was aboard the second flight of Southwest employees arriving in Chicago to help coordinate with the National Transportation Safety Board's investigators and help provide care for passengers and injured motorists.

The first one, carrying 94 members of the airline's Go Team, arrived at 3:25 a.m., a little more than eight hours after the incident.

Kelly's involvement is a step that hasn't been seen before, according to those who have been members of accident response teams for other airlines, including the Sioux City, Iowa, emergency landing of United Airlines Flight 232 in which 184 of the 296 people aboard survived.

"Stephen Wolf was there, and he went to the hospital and met with family members and some employees, but he didn't hold a press conference," said a person who was a member of the United response team.

At the time, Wolf was United's chairman and chief executive.

Steven Fink, president of Lexicon Communications Inc. of Pasadena, Calif., said Southwest Airlines might be writing a new chapter in crisis management books.

"I must say I was impressed," said Fink. "I think they are doing everything right so far.'

When there is a fatality, it's responsible to step up to the plate, Fink said, adding, "Maybe new ground has been broken for the airlines."

Ed Stewart, a spokesman for the Dallas-based airline, said it was Kelly's decision to take the lead.

"He wants to be the face of Southwest," Stewart said.

Stewart said Southwest, like other airlines, has a crisis manual that details its response.

Not only is Kelly here coordinating Southwest's response, but many of the airline's other department heads also are here.

"We take this so seriously that we want to send our top officers to oversee this," Stewart said.

He said Joyce Rogge, the airline's senior vice president of marketing, is charge of the carrier's passenger care team, a group of people assigned to meet individually with each passenger and make sure their concerns are handled.

"They have experienced something we didn't want our customers to be involved with," said Stewart explaining the carrier's efforts.

John Schmeltzer writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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