Southwest Airlines free ukulele giveaway provoke internet backlash

Have you ever wanted to take a ukulele lesson on an airplane?

Somehow, that’s the question dividing the internet this week.

(Side note: read to the end for info about how to potentially get two free Southwest Airlines tickets.)

On Sept. 16, every passenger on a Southwest Airlines flight from Long Beach, California to Honolulu got a free ukulele and an inflight lesson. They were also treated – or maybe subjected – to a short performance by Aryyzona, a Los Angeles-based musician and social media influencer.

The airline posted about the flight on its social media platforms Tuesday, and the response was immediate and polarized.

The posts generated an unusually high response rate according to Alyssa Foster, a Southwest spokesperson who was involved in coordinating the promotion. But, she said, the tone of those responses varied a lot by platform. Twitter users were generally less keen on the idea, but the airline’s fans on Instagram responded a lot more positively, she said.

Before the pandemic, Southwest was known for these onboard “surprise and delight” programs, but they’ve been on pause during the travel downturn. After a few years without them, Foster said, a lot of social media watchers may be learning about Southwest’s unique corporate culture for the first time.

“That’s awareness for you, and it’s something we were using to promote that service from Hawaii to Long Beach,” she said. “If you aren’t onboard or you haven’t experienced it, it’s out of the ordinary, and that’s kind of the point … It’s something special and uniquely Southwest.”

What goes into planning an onboard ukulele giveaway?

Foster told USA TODAY that any promotion like this takes a lot of forethought, and it’s not just a matter of securing hundreds of instruments and cases. The airline and its partners focus on what they want to promote – in this case, a relatively new flight from Long Beach to Honolulu for Southwest, and the availability of lessons at Guitar Center.

Planners also consider which flights make the most sense for an experience that, if Twitter is to be believed, not everyone would be thrilled about taking part in.

“We don’t want to do something on a 6 a.m. flight,” Foster said. “We’re really thinking about what kind of customer is onboard.”

Were people trapped?

Foster admitted that the ukulele program made use of the plane’s PA system, but she was quick to note that the whole thing took about 20 minutes on a roughly six-hour flight, and customers were encouraged to put their instruments away when it ended.

“There was still time for people to sit back and relax,” she said. “We planned to make sure from the beginning it would be a fun experience.”

The three instructors onboard were from Guitar Center’s Pearl City store, and Foster said that Southwest has aimed to educate both its employees and its customers about Hawaiian culture since they started serving the islands. 

She also said the airline’s advanced planning meant there were no issues with carry-on baggage not having enough room as a result of the extra instruments onboard.

“Everyone had a great time. They were already on their way to Hawaii,” Foster said.

Guitar Center also offered to ship the ukuleles back to passengers’ homes for free.

Can I get a free ukulele?

Maybe! Southwest is extending the promotion with a sweepstakes. The winner will receive two round-trip tickets to anywhere in the airline’s network, and two ukuleles to boot.

All you have to do is enter your information here.

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