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Unfriendly Skies

Where is the Southwest of Yester-Year?

By Mickey FinnPublished 7 years ago 12 min read

One thing that I can’t stand is how we seem to have lost even the illusion of “customer service” with such an important industry as Air Travel. Over the years the process became more miserable, and the space became more crowded. Somewhere along the way, we became cattle that could pay their own way. I recently traveled from San Diego to North Carolina with my girlfriend, Gigi and the Wee Lad. As things fell apart en route, Southwest Airlines made no moves to help the passengers with contingencies. Our trip ended with me keeping watch over a sleeping nine-year-old and his mother, in a strange airport.

In the days of customer service, there would have been no question about a refund. They completely failed to meet the reasonable expectations I had when I paid them for the tickets. Yes, air travel is subject to the whims of Mother Nature, but this excuse has been milked to cover up every failure the industry has. It is still the responsibility of the person accepting the money to cover contingencies.

On June 6th, at 10:30 am, I boarded Southwest a Southwest Airlines flight from San Diego, connecting in New Orleans and ending up in Greenville-Spartanburg airport. We landed too late to rent a car, so my Mom and Aunt were going to come pick us up. The plan didn’t develop cracks, so much as explode, get taped together for a minute, then explode again.

When the plane touched down in Dallas, I saw an email from Southwest delaying our take-off from New Orleans until 11:30 pm. That was our original landing time at Greenville. Shit! I thought. I had better get rescheduled as soon as I can. I called the customer service line and waited all through the connection. The lady on the other end of the plane explained that bad weather in Atlanta had delayed flights and interrupted the flight schedule. I explained that I was traveling with a nine-year-old and that we would wind up stranded at our final destination.

The woman explained that my travel concerns were my responsibility, and not the airline’s. I was a bit taken back by this, because they were my method of travel. My travel concerns consisted, in their entirety of: Hire professionals.

Now, I traveled a lot during my time in the oilfield and saw a lot of issues and how different airlines handle them. Up until that moment, I would have sworn to you that Southwest was one of the best airlines for contingencies and customer service. A close second would be Alaskan.

Once a door seal failed a ground check. They stood us up, took us to another plane, and by the time the people from the second plane began boarding, the door was fixed. It was an exemplary use of contingency planning, coordination and customer service. On credit, for all the good I had seen, I buried my objections and resigned myself to being late.

When we arrived in New Orleans, I asked the lady at the nearest boarding kiosk about space on another flight. She said that ours was the only flight going to Greenville until ten the following morning. I explained that I meant any flight, on any airline. She seemed perplexed and said that Southwest had never done that. She seemed to be saying that there was no possible way to do that. I checked the urge to explain how one buys airline tickets using the enigmatic substance “money”. She is just “the person who is here”. She hadn’t made the mess.

So then, I asked about hotel vouchers at my final destination. She then explained that because the issue was weather-related, our situation did not merit a hotel voucher. So, the airline…whose purpose is to get people where they are paid to take them according to the schedule the customer selects…was, by no means responsible for planning around rain in a city in the American Southeast. That concept is so ridiculous that it can only be expressed as a run-on sentence.

An attorney is responsible for planning for opposition to their argument. A financial analyst is supposed to plan for the market to act unpredictably. An airline should probably have a back-up plan to bring in a plane from another airport when weather bogs another plane down. Barring that, why wouldn’t you invest in contracted back-up systems with other airlines in your region? I am not even in the airline industry and I can think of these solutions. Why hasn’t Southwest?

She did offer me an olive branch, even if it wasn’t much of one. She explained that at my final destination, I could ask the baggage-service representative for a “distressed-rate” voucher and get a cheaper hotel. I could deal with that answer, I just wanted to get somewhere safe so the Wee Lad could get some rest. I couldn’t help but think that the old Southwest would have done things differently and wondered about management changing.

Recently, the Southwest Corporation has undergone some leadership restructuring. I remember when they were the “cheap” airline. Then, when everyone else began cutting services and charging fees, Southwest resisted. When other airlines made a mess out of their boarding practice in attempts to add value to their flights, Southwest stuck to their guns. A decade later, Southwest kept competitive rates, and treated their customers better than any other airline and their market shares grew.

Now, with new blood coming in from other airlines that have had to cut back on personnel, the culture that Southwest built over the years is fading away quickly. Yes, contingencies are expensive. Yes, you may lose money in the short term focusing on the customer. That is called “the cost of doing business”.

My stand alone point about the wisdom of this is pretty direct: You got where you are by being Southwest. You invested in the customer and it paid off. Since this change in leadership, you are trying to be Delta Airlines. I can only assume that the change of management likely involved some people head-hunted from the competition you have force to downsize. Why on Earth your plan forward would be predicated on the opinion of people you put out of business, I have no idea.

So, the time for flight 1274 out of New Orleans jumped between 8:30 pm and 11:30 pm several times, and I tried to stay positive. I did tweet about the debacle, and the Twitter Customer Service rep assured me that they were doing everything possible to get me traveling again. Everything except have a staggered regional schedule with two unloaded planes on the ground at all times, or simply take the money I gave them and buy me a ticket on another airline. Not two minutes after he said that the time for the flight was finalized: 11:30 pm. I screenshotted the email to let him know what a bang-up job he was doing.

When we landed in Atlanta, we expected to wait on the plane as people were unloaded and the new passengers loaded and then take off right away for Greenville. Except a Boarding Agent came on instead, took our names and asked us to de-plane because there were currently no pilots available for the flight. The one we were sitting on. The plane that two pilots had just landed, moments ago.

At this point, I got furious. I nearly bit the bullet and cancelled my return flight, which was also with Southwest. The only thing stopping me from really coming undone was that the Boarding Agent was not the person that could help me and I wasn’t sure I could keep it together in front of the kid. I de-planed and called customer service to get some answers once-and-for-all. After an understandably long wait, a female voice answered.

“Hello,” I explained. “My name is Mickey, and I am one of the victims of flight 1274, I really need to talk…Hello?”

They hung up on me. Hours of delays that were not my fault, that the airline failed to account for and only one of us got paid roughly one-month’s rent to deal with. They hung up on me. Even the Wee Lad, who isn’t one for noticing things, saw my expression change. Adorable buichall that he is, he gave me a shoulder massage to calm me down. It was too cute, and took the edge off. I could deal with the rest of the trip. We would just get a hotel room and grab a nap, because, at this point, we weren’t getting to Greenville until after 2:30 am on the 7th no matter who intervened.

So, forty-five minutes later the pilots for our last leg arrived, and a half-hour after that, we took off on a forty-minute flight to Greenville. When we landed, I went directly into the baggage service where the clerk informed me, immediately, that I could not report a bag missing until all the bags were off the carousel. I ignored the attempted brush-off and explained that I was there for a “distressed-rate” voucher. She peered into a drawer and pushed one across the counter to me It was for Fairfield Inn, and she said it was the only one that she had.

I was thoroughly done with caring. This ordeal meant that the we lost a day of our vacation already and I wasn’t about to lose more being upset about it. We collected our bags, called a Lyft Driver named Robert to get us to the hotel. He said we were lucky, he had been just about to turn off the app for the evening. We got to the hotel and I handed the voucher to the tall young clerk, whose nametag read “Marion”. At this point, I had to go find something to hit.

It was 4:10 am, and the hotel that they gave me the voucher to had no rooms to rent, at all. No mangers out back where we could lay our sweet heads either. The young kid looked miserable and began immediately checking other hotels owned by Marriott. He literally did more for us than the people who put us in this mess. Gigi and I were both frantically calling every hotel Marriott didn’t own. Now, the whole time I am replaying the “this is our only one left” line at the baggage service office. I was beat and had been awake for almost twenty-four hours at this point, but I can’t think why that didn’t serve as a clue that we may run into trouble booking the room. That would have required her taking her nose out of her phone, though.

Spartanburg, South Carolina had no hotel rooms. Not a single one. Marion was a credit to Marriott’s customer service, and he called every property they had within twenty-five miles to find us a room. The baggage rep had given no indication that we may run into problems getting a room. She pushed the discount-voucher at me and went back to whatever she was doing on her phone. So now I was stranded in a strange city, with my family and only the hope that such a small airport keeps it’s doors open twenty-four-seven. Otherwise, we had to sleep on the sidewalk for several hours while my elderly parents drove through the zero-dark-thirty mountain roads to come get us.

I raged on Twitter, and the Social Media team reached out to me again. This time, I had it. I was tired, watching the bags and could do nothing but wait. I wasn’t nuts about my parents driving out at that time of the morning, but Southwest had let me down at every opportunity. As the Twitter team assured me they would contact me with an offer to make it up to me, I had just a bit of hope left.

Little did I know that they had one more big disappointment for me and my family: After delays compounding other delays, being hung up on, brushed out of someone’s phone fixation and blatantly lied to all night, they brought out the cherry on top. A completely meaningless and, frankly, insulting $75 per ticket I had purchased. So, well less than half of the amount I had paid them for a service that they completely failed to provide.

The funny part was when I explained that I considered that to be far less than what was acceptable to me. The Twitter team explained that they could not possibly assign a monetary value to the frustration and disappointment I had gone through that night. Meanwhile, they had just done exactly that. This email also changed the story about the issue being weather related. Now it was “operational failure”. This further fed my notion that the weather excuse was being milked to cover the expenses of bad planning.

Being helpful, I cited the exact amount of money that I had paid them for the trip. Considering everything I had gone through only to still wind up sleeping at an airport because they had failed to plan for a very likely possibility? It was more than fair. You didn’t get me where I needed to go, or provide for safe travel, therefore, return my money.

The issue is that the cost of doing business is not simply the cost of unobstructed goals. You have to plan for the hard times. If your job is to haul potatoes from point-a to point-b and potatoes fall out of the truck, you get out and pick them up. The plan changed, and you had a perfectly reasonable contingency. Therefore, despite possibly losing money by stopping, you gain business because you build a reputation for reliability. That is the best advertising that a company has: Rhetoric. People suspect ads, they suspect promotions and they suspect companies. They listen to people that they know. So, for the investors out there, this is what your fool-proof plan to build your market? Because I am your market. It doesn’t look good from here.

I hate saying it but all of my old favorites are letting me down with quality, service and keeping their word. I chose Southwest, because they were Southwest. This is the kind of grass roots issue that investors often miss because it is too late. I am here to tell you that the culture you invested in is quickly losing what makes it a good return. I was, by no means alone in those boarding areas. I spoke to dozens of people, and all of them on the phone and social media railing about your inefficiency, your lack of assistance and laughable efforts at amends. Even if you did it for every passenger of Flight 1274 and lost the entire flight's income, it would probably be cheaper than the seats that you won’t book in the next six months

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