Southwest Airlines is without a question the greatest, most customer-friendly, bestest airline – maybe company – in the entire world.
I’ve thought that for quite a while but after my travel debacle last week, I have come to remember why I think that’s really the case. At first my relationship with Southwest was borne of my frugality. Ok I tend to be cheap. But back in 1996 I first came to the realization that a seven hour drive home to my parents’ house or a twelve hour drive to my grandmother’s house in Georgia were hours that could be better spent. Enter Southwest.
With their business model of offering lost-cost flights to and from smaller regional airports, suddenly my two most frequented destinations were covered by this airline from Texas – Providence, Rhode Island (home) and Jacksonville, FL (my gateway to coastal Georgia and grandma).
Where I live in Washington, DC you have three airport options for travel – Reagan National, Dulles International, and Baltimore-Washington International. National is great and the most convenient but the flights tend to be short hoppers and you will almost always pay out the you-know-what for the convenience of flying at an airport within a few miles of the U.S. Capitol. Dulles offers more flights and a dedicated lane of highway to get there, but it also has these lame moon rovers (more below) that take 25 hours to get you to your gate. BWI is the last option and while it is roughly 35 miles away from downtown DC, but has grown astronomically over the past decade thanks in large part to Southwest.
The impetus for today’s blog comes from a fun little visit to Dulles airport I took last Monday as I tried to take an 8:41 am direct flight to Austin, Texas. (From Washington, DC there are only two direct options to Austin – one out of Dulles and the other out of BWI.) I arrived at the airport about one hour and five minutes ahead of time, checked a bag well within the window not to be labeled ‘late’ and then stepped into the security line at about 7:43 am. Apparently Monday was an optional work day for TSA agents as there were roughly two agents processing the inexplicably heavy number of passengers. Because of that, it took nearly 45 minutes to snake through the Space Mountain partitions of rope and stanchion. (For all those ‘Dulles is Better than BWI’ people out there, realize that the delay at the security line is actually caused because ALL flights at Dulles go through the same security choke point. At BWI, there are separate lines for each concourse. But I digress and will save the reasons why Dulles sucks so badly for another blog.) Once through, I began a full sprint to my gate, and while it was almost 8:30 am, I still held out hope I could make it. A friend on the same flight who was at the gate was also pleading with the agents to not give my seat away.
As I began my best Carl Lewis impression, I came to a crashing halt when I realized I needed to take the Dulles moon rovers to my gate. Yes that’s right, if you haven’t been to Dulles, they don’t have logical or efficient methods of moving passengers from one terminal to the next like a continuously circling tram or a moving walkway. They have these ridiculous-looking rectangular bus type thingees propped up on 7 foot rims that go about four miles an hour. They drive around the runways in between planes and make an already slow and inconvenient process even more so. I am absolutely certain that some Senator back in the day had a friend who made these stupid things and couldn’t sell them, and then he helped steer the sales contract over to Dulles. Man they suck.
Anyway, apparently I missed the sign above the door of the moon rover bus thingee labeled “Dulles Terminal Tour” because what was a 300 yard drive took almost 10 minutes. Despite that, I could still see the plane on the ground at the gate and the plane door still open. Hope was still alive. As I sprinted to the gate, I saw people walking down the jetway. ‘I made it, thank god’ I thought to myself. I handed my boarding pass to the oh-so-friendly ticket agent who stopped me short. The following is the text of the conversation that ensured:
“I’m sorry sir, the Austin flight is closed.”
“Huh, where are all these people going then?”
“We are sharing a jetway, they are going to Kansas City.”
“Ok, but the Austin flight is right there, the door is still open, and they are still loading luggage.”
“Yes sir but once the flight is closed, we cannot put anyone on the flight.”
“Right but I am here, I checked in at the airport, and the door is open.”
“Yes but we gave your seat away and there are no others.”
At this time, my friend on the plane emailed me that there are seats open on the flight and I relayed this information to the gate lady.
“I have a friend on board who says there are a few seats open.”
“I’m sorry sir, the flight is closed.”
“I understand that but can you help me out please?”
“No, the flight is closed, please step aside.”
After the realization that no amount of pleading or reasoning was going to change things, I watched, 10 minutes later, as the door was closed and the flight pulled away. It was the first flight I have ever missed in my life and for some reason I felt like such a failure. Looking back, it was my fault I suppose. I guess I should’ve been there with six hours leeway, but at the end of the day, the less-than-helpful agent could’ve bent the rules a tad and gotten me on that plane.
As a result of her not doing so, things went from bad to worse. After the flight left, I was told that there were only two other flights that would get me to Austin. One was at 12:30 pm and the other at 5:19 pm. In case you lost track or just don’t care, I learned this at about 8:45 am. Good choices there. Oh and they were both way oversold. Getting to Austin was becoming less and less likely as the best this lame airline could offer me was the standby lists for flights overbooked and hours away. Calling my company travel agent, my other options were pretty limited. I actually entertained the idea of driving from Dulles to BWI to catch one of the 300 Southwest flights remaining to Austin. But in the end, a flight through Atlanta finally got me into central Texas nearly 12 hours since I started my journey.
So with that lengthy preface, allow my thoughts on why Southwest airlines rules in light of the difficulties I encountered. First, the people who work there are understanding. Sure they sing and make awful jokes, but SWA employees legitimately care about customers. And I am confident that had I arrived at the gate of a Southwest flight facing the same predicament I did at Dulles, that person would’ve allowed me onto the flight. And if he couldn’t, he would’ve put me on the very next flight which likely would’ve been within the hour.
Next, SWA is so accommodating to customers’ schedules and more importantly they don’t exploit changes that are certain to occur. The airline I was on wanted to charge me $100 to change my flight (if I went with another of the later flights); they couldn’t offer me any assurance of when I would be able to actually get where I needed to go; and to top it off, because I missed my flight, they automatically canceled my return flight home. Thanks so much for your help ass clowns. When you miss a flight or need to change a flight on Southwest, you can do it online and without a charge. That’s right, if I need to move or change or cancel a flight, I can do so pretty easily online or through the 800 number and it’s changed without a penalty. If I so much as change my seat on any other airline I end up being pushed to the red-eye and losing $300. If you miss a flight, the amount of the fare that isn’t refundable goes into a travel account for you to use right away with no penalty. There really isn’t a customer service issue I can think that they could do better.
It’s important to note that Southwest isn’t for every one – my mother for one complains about the no frills style of and cattle car feel (as my friend who actually made the flight described) of this common carrier. That’s true, there aren’t many perks. No first class, no business class, no rubbery chicken meals, no movies, no seat assignments, and no real legroom.
But do you know what? I’ll take new planes, a flawless safety record, on-time schedules, and a snack box full of good eats any day. That and oh yeah that thing that inspires loyalty to any brand – customer service.
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