Southwest Airlines in Hot Water Over Seaworld Blackfish Controversy

Shamu One
Shamu One

Despite apparent record profits, SeaWorld is in the thick of an emotional controversy about the ethics of keeping dolphins and whales in captivity for the purpose of putting on shows. It all stems from last fall’s documentary, Blackfish, which depicts the life of Tilikum, a captive orca who has killed three people over the years. The film alleges his behavior is the result of psychological trauma brought on by being in captivity and goes on to discuss many other ethical downsides to whale and dolphin shows.

Let me get my bias right out on the table – I think dolphin and orca shows are ridiculous, though I’m willing to give SeaWorld the benefit of the doubt that they have at least a modicum of conservational value somewhere buried between the roller coasters and popcorn stands. SeaWorld does make some effort to create an educational experience for visitors, but it is definitely not a zoo. Its primary mission is entertaining and making money.

However, this post is about Southwest Airlines, one of SeaWorld’s promotional partners and the latest target of attention by folks rallying to put a stop to cetacean captivity performances. The hope is that pressure on Southwest will reach SeaWorld.

For years, Southwest Airlines has been a marketing parter for Sea World, decorating planes in “Shamu” colors. With a huge presence in Orlando and San Diego, the partnership likely drives a lot of business for the airline.   Southwest also has a very good reputation for CSR – in particular employee engagement and listening to customers as well as integrated GRI reporting.  Much of this is manifested on Southwest’s very good blog.

Southwest’s response (so far) has been first rate – a non defensive blog post, openly acknowledging the concerns of the thousands of people who have been in touch with the airline.  Most importantly, Southwest is taking comments on the post, and does not seem to be censoring critical comments.  The result is a dialogue that has remained civil and constructive.

As of today’s writing the post makes no commitment to alter Southwest’s marketing relationship with SeaWorld, but with more and more attention piling on the issue – not to mention Blackfish’s likely position as an Academy Award nominee – this is certainly not the last communication we’re likely to hear from them.

The question is what happens next? It may seem a bit unfair for Southwest to be held responsible for something that is not directly under their control. But with rising concern about their partner’s behavior, the pressure is on to take a stance one way or another.

Personally, I’d love to see Southwest drop SeaWorld, make a nice donation to Conservation International and keep their orcas flying.  Just rename them something other than Shamu.  But at the end of the day, the company will walk a fine line judging the volume of protests with the possibility of lost business with a dose of their own ethics. However it plays out, it will be a very interesting decision to watch.

Rigged poll in Orlando Sentinel

Image c/o Southwest

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of TriplePundit.com

TriplePundit.com has since grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for TreeHugger.com, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.