DALLAS: Southwest Airlines' PR team coordinated across departments and worked closely with authorities in order to craft a message that did not interfere with an ongoing investigation into suspicious items found on two of its aircraft on October 16. The items were two box cutters, matches, and clay made to look like plastic explosives.
"We don't want to be involved in any rumor or speculation," said Ed Stewart, senior director of PR. "Working with federal authorities, we wanted to give a reassuring message both to our customers and our employees, but we didn't want to give a lot of detail."
The message, crafted by Ginger Hardage, VP of corporate communications, was released to the media and employees simultaneously via press release, company websites, and intranet. It stated that the items discovered in two lavatory compartments were intended to simulate a threat to security and challenge the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint procedures. The statement did not speculate as to who might have left the items on board, and stated the airline's intent to cooperate fully with investigators. College student Nathaniel Heatwole later admitted to authorities that he placed the items on the planes in an effort to test airline security.
Southwest has fielded hundreds of media calls, said Stewart, and distributed the calls to its four primary spokespeople.
"Reporters wanted to know what will happen next, and how will we do things differently with regards to security," Stewart said. "We let them know that the TSA is responsible for security, and that the airline did everything it was supposed to do."
Stewart said that airline leadership applauded maintenance crews for discovering the suspicious materials in two planes in different locations almost simultaneously. Crews inspected the remaining 383 aircraft overnight to ensure that Southwest would be fully operational the next day.