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by Paul Kiser
USA PDT  [Twitter: ] [Facebook] [LinkedIn] [Skype:kiserrotary or 775.624.5679]

Paul Kiser

Teresa Laraba
Senior Vice President Customer Services
Southwest Airlines

Dear Teresa:

Last Friday I felt betrayed by Southwest Airlines and while the outcome of the event was not horrible, the stress it caused me has profoundly effected the trust I place in your airline. I also felt that some of your key people failed in their duty toward customer service.

I have been on 28 Southwest flights since the beginning of August and the one that was the longest was last Friday’s flight from Boston to Reno. I was on the flight for almost eight hours. I knew it was going to be a long flight, but I always pay for Early Bird boarding so that I can get a window seat and settle in. I have relied on this service to make the ‘open seating’ policy less of an ordeal, especially on long, full flights where the last to board are the Big Losers who have to sit in the middle seat.

The Boarding Pass of Shame

The day started out stressful as a major storm hit the northeast and I had to drive through heavy rain, in the dark to get to the airport. After getting to the airport, gassing up the car, and turning it in, I took a sigh of relief as I went to get my boarding pass. I had early boarding, which was critical on a flight that would be five minutes short of 8 hours on the same plane. I finally found the TSA line and as I stood there I looked to see where I would be in the ‘A’ Boarding Group. I was shocked to see that I was in the ‘B’ Boarding Group, and that I was at the end of the ‘B’ Group.

I got through the security line and went to the Gate Counter. I asked the gate agent at the counter, (who seemed like she was in a bad mood at 6:30 AM in the morning,) if this was a mistake. She said that there was a ‘computer glitch’* and that all Early Boarding passengers lost their Early Boarding status. She told me I would be refunded $10.

(DEFINITION: Computer Glitch – One of our computer programmers applied a change to the system that screwed everything up, and while it was human caused, we’re going to make it sound like a mechanical problem, so we don’t have to take responsibility for the error and actually do something to make it right.)

Southwest Airlines doesn’t seem to understand that when you fail to do what you promise, giving back the money you took in exchange for that promise is not making it right. Giving money back for a service not performed is what you are legally obligated to do, it’s not doing me a favor. It is essentially saying, “We’re not going to try to screw you out of your money for our failure to do our job.”…thanks a lot.

So I was going to sit in the middle seat for an eight-hour flight because Southwest screwed up and that was your ‘best’ customer service response. I complained further and the gate agent reluctantly said she would let me board at the end of the ‘A’ group. That was a good half measure at a solution, but I still don’t know why she didn’t offer it when she first admitted the error.

I was still frustrated so I called your Customer Service line. I was met with the same cold, uncaring, “..we’ve had a computer glitch and you’ll be refunded your $10.” When I told her that I was going to be stuck on the same plane for eight hours she acted like she didn’t believe me. I then helped her with the math and explained the three time zones we would be crossing, to which she said, “Oh, yes, that is eight hours.” In her defense she did suggest that I could talk to the gate agent, but I had already done that with little results.

I’ve flown SWA a lot recently, and I’ve come to trust the Early Bird boarding system. I used to try to pull my boarding pass at 24 hours before boarding in order to get a decent seat with limited success. The Early Bird boarding option has made all the hours in a loud aluminum tube where I have no rights, no say, and no real food, … bearable. BUT, on the longest flight of 29 (tomorrow is #29), the system failed me…big time. What I’ve learned from this not only is the Early Bird boarding system unreliable, that when there is a problem, Southwest does not, 1) recognize the significance, or attempts to minimize the problem, and 2) offers no reasonable solution unless you really complain.

I do have three positive experiences to report that kept this flight from being a disaster. First, I was able to get a window seat and that kept me from going over the edge. Second, another SWA employee, (Mark, I think) who actually loaded the passengers on the plane, recognized that the loss of the Early Bird boarding passes was a major problem. He made it clear that anyone with Early Bird boarding would be allowed on the plane at the end of the ‘A’ Group. He admitted that it was a big problem and he apologized several times for it.

That was it! Admitting it was a major problem, apologizing for it, and then attempting to make it right was the key to showing that someone cared. The gate agent and the phone ‘customer service’ showed a lack sympathy or concern. Your ‘customer service’ staff has become too good at minimizing the problem and being ‘professional’ by not caring.

The third positive came from the flight deck. We boarded the plane to sit there for an hour so someone (a professional mechanic) could come and tape up an exit sign that was hanging down. However, the pilot (possibly the co-pilot) came out and personally explained, multiple times what was going on and during the flight he came out and walked the plane explaining where we were in the flight. He cared enough to show his face and give us the news, bad and good.

I don’t understand why your customer service staff is so uncaring, leaving the rest of the employees at SWA to pick up their slack? I will likely continue to fly SWA because we really don’t have a choice anymore, but I will go back to pulling my boarding passes 24 hours in advance, even with my Early Bird boarding fee, just because I can’t trust your system to do what it supposed to do, and because when it fails, your CS staff could care less.

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