Southwest Responds Swiftly to its First Fatal Accident in 35-Year History

Dec. 10--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 Gary Kelly expressed the airlines condolences for the accident within hours of an accident in which one of its 737s over-ran a runway and skidded off airport grounds into a major street.

"There are absolutely no words to accurately state our grief and our sorrow over this tragedy," Kelly said Friday at the second of two news conferences. Kelly held the first news conference in Dallas, while the second was held upon his arrival in Chicago.

A 6-year-old boy died and at least 10 people were injured Thursday 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.

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 flight, carrying 94 members of the airline's Go Team arrived at 3:25 a.m., a little more than 8 hours after the accident.

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 one person who was a member of the United response team. At the time, Wolf was chairman and chief executive of United.

Steven Fink, president of Lexicon Communications Inc. of Pasadena, Calif., said Southwest may 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 you do have a fatality, it is the responsibility to step up to the plate, he said. "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.

Like other airlines, Stewart said Southwest 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 are also here.

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

Stewart said Joyce Rogge, the airline's senior vice president of marketing, is charge of the carrier's passenger care team, which is 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.