On the Job @SouthwestAir, Words Matter

15 Nov, 2013 Bob Wilson


I've spoken a great deal on changing the style and depth of communication within the workers' compensation industry. Better communication will yield better results for the employers and injured workers that we serve. We had a terrific example this week, showing what we say and how we say it – even by accident - can dramatically alter the perceptions and outcome of any situation.

As I have written previously, I am a diehard Southwest Airlines customer. It is a company I respect tremendously, and I will drive hours out of my way to get to airports they serve (although they have been growing quite nicely and that need is getting more infrequent). Still, no company is perfect, and no human is perfect, so just bear in mind I offer this constructive criticism as a Southwest Rapid Rewards Card Carrying A-List Preferred Companion Pass Holding Southwest Visa possessing devotee. I LUV you. I really do.

Apparently last Tuesday Southwest Airlines Flight 3426, en route to Raleigh Durham International Airport from Tampa, FL, encountered some sort of warning indicating they may have a pressurization problem. The pilots quickly and appropriately decided they needed to descend rapidly to a safer altitude. Now the pilot could have toggled the planes PA system, and made the announcement that they must engage in a “controlled descent” due to a technical concern, but, “not to worry”, as “the plane would be in full control during this maneuver”.

That's not quite what happened.

Passengers reported the pilot came over the PA and said, “We're in trouble. We're going down”, just as the plane pulled into what passengers describe as a “nosedive”. I must note this is a marked improvement from the time the JetBlue pilot told his passengers they were all going to die while he pounded on the locked cockpit door demanding to be let back in. It should also be noted that one man's controlled descent can easily be another man's nosedive. In the end game, it is all about information and perception, and a person's perception is their reality. Passengers purportedly thought they were about to die. Some even tried to text their love ones – with electronic devices that were no doubt off or only in airplane mode as required by federal law – to say “goodbye”.

Personally, I would have been far more practical. I would have texted the pilot:

“Captain Pilot, WTF?”

“Extend the flaps! Pull back on the throttle! Lower the gear!”

“Rubber side down, please!”

Actually, that is not true. In reality I am one of the three people in this country who turns his phone completely off when flying. By the time my iPhone booted up in order to send that text, we'd be strolling up the jet way at Raleigh Durham.

After a few harrowing minutes, the plane leveled off, and landed at RDI without incident. Records indicate it arrived 2 minutes ahead of schedule, but was 66 minutes late departing on its next leg. Casual and amateur observers likely believe they were checking the plane for mechanical issues. I don't think that was it at all.

I believe they were late because they had to clean the seats. And the carpet. I'm not sure what they did with the urine soaked luggage from the compartments below.

There is some dispute on how this incident came to fruition. Southwest officials have apparently indicated the pilot was attempting to communicate with the flight crew, but accidentally activated the planes public address system. Either way, mission accomplished.

Pilots have a tremendous number of things to do during unexpected emergencies such as this. Communicating with the passengers is, technically speaking, the least important one of them, but emotionally it is critical. I was once on a Southwest flight that had to undergo an emergency landing. The smell of something electrical burning had filled the aircraft, and we were diverted to an airport we were essentially over, resulting in a somewhat wild and wooly, twisting descent. The pilot in that case came on the system to tell us we had been diverted, and they were getting us down as quickly and safely as possible. I will never forget him saying, as the plane pitched hard in a turn, “We're kind of busy right now, but I'll get back to you as soon as I can”. I'm glad he found the time to explain what he could, and clearly include us in the conversation.

Sometimes we should include the injured worker and employer in those conversations, particularly if something has gone wrong and we're "going down".

I will be flying to Las Vegas Monday out of Tampa, on my way to the National Workers' Compensation and Disability Conference. To no one's surprise, I am flying Southwest. I know that I will be transported by a skilled and professional crew. Statistically speaking, they will likely get me there a few minutes ahead of schedule. I sincerely hope that, should some anomaly occur, our pilot understands how he or she communicates will impact our perception of the event.

Besides, in a crisis my bladder will fold like a lawn chair, and I am only taking a limited change of clothing.

The words we choose matter; and others perceptions of what they see and hear will be their reality.  We in the workers' compensation industry would be wise to remember this in the course of our daily interactions. Don't let that file or claim crash and burn on the "off cuff" remark, or the wrong turn of phrase.

Read More

Request a Demo

To request a free demo of one of our products, please fill in this form. Our sales team will get back to you shortly.