Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Southwest Airlines Redeems Itself, Becomes LegalMist's New Favorite Airline

Let's start the week's entertainment with a big shout-out for Southwest Airlines. This is a rather long post, so go get yourself a fresh cuppa coffee and a good snack, and settle in a comfy chair.

Ok, are you ready?

Great. Because first, I have to give you a rather long back story about how awful Southwest was 6 years ago. I had a terrible experience with them -- it was so bad I swore I'd never fly them again.

My daughter and I were flying and I wanted to use frequent flyer miles. At the time, Southwest used only a voucher system for the free tickets -- you had to go to the airport with your paper voucher and get your boarding card. They could not send an e-ticket. So they said they would mail the tickets.

A few days before the flight, the tickets had not arrived. So I called the reservations line and they transferred me to customer service, and customer service said, essentially, "oops, we forgot to mail them." To their credit, they agreed to FedEx them overnight at that point. But they wouldn't send the vouchers to my home address because they required a signature for the FedEx and no one would be home to sign for them. They said they would send to my office address so that I could sign for them. But the tickets didn't arrive in Thursday's 3 p.m. FedEx delivery.

The flight was Saturday morning. If the tickets did not arrive by Friday afternoon in the FedEx delivery, I would not get them in time for my flight. I wanted to be sure they had been sent.

So I called the customer service department to ask what happened. At about 3:30 on a Thursday afternoon, Phoenix time. And I got a recording that said, essentially, "We are closed. Please call back during business hours, which are 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time."

For my overseas readers, Eastern Standard Time is either 2 hours or 3 hours ahead of Arizona time. (It varies depending on the time of year because Arizona doesn't participate in the ridiculous twice-yearly clock-changing ritual due to daylight savings time -- we have enough daylight in Arizona, thank you very much...). Either way, by 3:30 p.m. in Phoenix, they were definitely closed for the day.

Uh, what was the name of that airline again?

Oh, yeah. SOUTHWEST. As in, "Southwestern United States," presumably.

The last time I checked, the Southwestern United States does not use Eastern Standard Time. They use Pacific Standard Time. Or perhaps Mountain Standard Time. Depending on which state and what time of year it is.

Shouldn't the customer service department at an Airline named "Southwest" be open until 5 p.m. Pacific time?!? At least? (Or maybe they should have named the airline "SouthEAST"?) I was peeved.

I tried calling the corporate office. It was closed, too.

I called the reservations system. They said they didn't know anything and couldn't help with the original tickets, but they could sell me some new tickets -- e-tickets -- at $500-plus per ticket and then I could ask for a refund when my other tickets came. I asked, will they definitely give me a refund? They said they didn't know. Great, thanks, very helpful.

So the next day, Friday, I called the customer service department.

Let me tell you, it is a good thing I have a sense of humor because I was able to laugh at the fact that I was on hold for twenty-five minutes waiting to talk to someone, while listening to their muzak and announcement loop.

What made me laugh about that, you ask?

Their recorded announcement at the time consisted of a soft woman's voice interrupting the muzak occasionally to say things in a "soothing" tone -- things like "Are you stressed out? Annoyed? Angry? Did you know that deep breathing exercises have been scientifically shown to reduce stress and anger? Please... try it with me now.... Breeeathe in ...... thaaat's right, now, hoooold for five seconds..... goooood.... now, breeeathe out sloooowly." I swear I am not making this up.

(Tip O' the Day for you, corporate America: A better method of reducing your customers' stress levels would be to have plenty of good customer service representatives who answer the telephone quickly, during reasonable business hours, and actually help the customers, rather than trying to teach us "deep breathing exercises" with muzak playing in the background.)

I did not do the deep breathing exercises. I was too busy laughing. So I guess, in its own way, the technique worked to calm me down.

But then they answered the phone, and I quickly lost my sense of humor again. I asked what happened to the tickets they promised to send me. They said, "Oh, well we sent the the tickets to [my home address (which was the billing address I had given them for the credit card, not the shipping address)], but they couldn't deliver them because no one was there to sign for them."

I said, "I know no one was home. That is why you promised to send them to my office address!"

They checked their computer notes and said, essentially, "oops."

But, not to worry, they said, surely FedEx will deliver the tickets today, right?

I said, well perhaps, but no one is home today either. And I don't know what time they deliver things at my home address. So, suppose I go home right now and wait around until 5 p.m., and then it turns out they already tried to deliver the package today, or that they don't re-deliver until Saturday? By then, your office will be closed, and then how will I fix the problem of having no tickets?

They said, essentially, "Well, we can't help you."

I asked, can't you email me something, or call your representatives in Phoenix, or fax something to your Phoenix office or to the Phoenix airport and have them issue some tickets, or something?

They said, "No, because those free tickets might still be delivered, and then you would have two free sets of tickets. You can buy new tickets, and then when your free tickets arrive, you can send those in to [corporate address] along with your receipt for the tickets you bought and request a refund." I asked, "If I request a refund, will they give me one?" They said, "I dunno. I think so."

"You 'think' they will? So I'm supposed to spend $1100 and then hope you'll give me a refund?!? When it was your mistake? What if they don't give me a refund? Am I just "out" the $1100?"

They promised to make sure I would get a refund. They would not, however, tell me their name so I could say, later, "but so-and-so promised a refund." I was suspicious, but didn't have much choice, so I bought new tickets at the expensive last-minute price.

Big mistake. The flight was awful.

I was traveling with my daughter who was four at the time.

The flight was delayed, and they did the typical late-flight-routine at the airport, telling us the flight would be delayed "fifteen minutes," and then fifteen minutes later telling us it would be delayed another "fifteen minutes," and then another "fifteen minutes" and then another... If they had said "one hour delay" the first time, we could have gone to the restaurant and had breakfast and come back. Instead, we had to hang around the gate with my daughter getting bored and hungry and thirsty and whiny.

Just when I was starting to think it would have been faster to drive to our destination, they let us board the plane.

The flight attendants were apparently feeling tired and/or they were just mean. My request for a blanket was met with a cold stare and a "We're out of them." (Not even a perfunctory "sorry.")

On our relatively short, one and a half hour flight, they waited until an hour into the flight to take drink orders. To be fair to them, the flight was rather bumpy, so perhaps they were waiting until we got past the turbulence so we wouldn't all spill our drinks in our lap. But meanwhile we were mighty thirsty, having already sat around at the airport gate, far from the water fountains and restaurants, unable to go get a drink of water for an hour past the scheduled boarding time. And they refused to provide more than one "Dixie Cup" sized drink. Usually airlines will let you have the whole can or bottle of whatever they are serving. Not on this flight. One Dixie Cup per person. No more.

And by the time they handed out the drinks, they were starting the descent. So they came around collecting cups less than five minutes after they handed them out. My daughter had barely had any of her water, and I wanted her to keep it so she would have something to sip on during the descent, to help with the air-pressure / inner-ear pressure problem that she always has on airplanes. So the flight attendant said, "May I take your cup?" And I said, "No, thank you."

One would think that would have been the end of the exchange, but not on this flight from H***.

The flight bi... I mean, attendant, said, "Ma'am, I need you to give that to me now."

I asked, nicely, "Can't I keep it so my daughter will have something to sip on, to help her ears during the landing?"

She said, "No, you CAN'T keep it. I HAVE TO collect it NOW!"

I said (trying to address all the possible objections I could think of), "It's just water. It's not going to be sticky if it spills. I promise to throw away the cup after the flight. It's a tiny plastic cup and it won't hurt anyone if the landing is bumpy and it goes flying."

She said, "Ma'am, that doesn't matter. It is a SERVICE ITEM and I HAVE TO COLLECT IT!"

I am not proud of the fact that I took out all my frustration of the past two days on that flight attendant. Nor am I proud that I set such a bad example for my daughter, arguing over something so trivial with a person who was just trying to do her job as she apparently understood it. It would probably have been the right thing to do, to just hand over the cup and say, "fine" after the first time she said, essentially, "no you can't keep it." But something about the flight attendant's snotty tone, combined with the ridiculousness of what she was demanding and the complete lack of customer service over the past couple of days just rubbed me the wrong way. I tried one more time to be nice, but I had already decided that she would get that cup of water back only if she pried it from my cold, dead hands.

So, I said, as nicely as I could muster, "Um, I'd really like to keep it."

She said (face turning red, very angrily), "You HAVE TO give it to me now! It is FEDERAL LAW! YOU CAN BE ARRESTED FOR DISOBEYING A FLIGHT ATTENDANT'S INSTRUCTIONS."

I got angry back and asked, loudly enough to be sure other passengers heard this one, but softly enough so I couldn't be accused of yelling at a flight attendant "Are you really saying you're going to have me arrested for keeping a small cup of water so my kid has something to drink so her ears won't hurt during the landing?!? Please, tell me you're joking."

She said, "Ma'am, I am NOT joking. I need you to GIVE ME THE CUP NOW or I WILL HAVE TO REPORT YOU TO THE AUTHORITIES."

I smiled condescendingly and shook my head and sighed and said, "Knock yourself out, lady. Call the FBI and have me arrested when we land if you like -- I'm sure the press will have a field day with that one! -- but you are NOT getting this cup of water!!" And I turned my back to her and simply ignored her as she repeated, "Ma'am, excuse me, Ma'am, you HAVE TO give me the cup...." (I know, I know. Petty and childish. As I said, I'm not proud of all this.)

Instead of responding further to the flight attendant, I talked to my daughter in a soft tone (so the flight attendant couldn't hear what I was saying) and I told her that I knew I was being silly and obnoxious and that she (my daughter) should *not* act this way, that she should be a better person than her mom was being, currently, but that I felt strongly that the flight attendant was being unreasonable and I was just fed up with this airline after the past couple of days of frustration, and that, truly, I was quite sure they would not actually arrest me for this (she was pretty worried about that), and that I was sorry that she had to see the whole exchange.... (Gosh I set a pretty bad example sometimes. I wonder if she remembers it?)

I half expected an "Airplane" type incident, in which the flight attendants would line up and slap/hit me repeatedly until I complied and/or until they could pry the cup from my cold, dead hands, but thankfully *that* didn't happen!

Instead, the pilot announced that the flight attendants should be seated for landing. The snotty flight attendant left.

As we walked off the plane, the flight attendants ignored us and talked to each other, chatting about their weekend plans. I tried to place the cup in the trash can, but they all ignored me and stood blocking the trash can, so I carried it off the plane and tossed it in a wastebasket in the airport.

The highlight of that flight was that I did not get arrested when we landed.

The return flight was delayed, too, and also had surly flight attendants. I swore I would never fly on that airline again.

But a couple of years later I was looking for flights and the tickets on Southwest were half the cost of the closest competitor, so I broke down and bought tickets and prepared for the worst. But that flight was fine, and the flight attendants were reasonably nice, and so I've continued to fly with them on occasion, and I've had no other major problems -- a couple of late flights, maybe, but nothing major.

And I have to say, Saturday's flight was fantastic (well, as good as a coach-class flight can be, anyway).

They do everything, even free tickets, on the internet and by email these days, so there were no problems getting the tickets.

You can log in online 24 hours ahead of time and get your boarding passes so you don't have to wait in the super-long line at the airport to get your boarding passes.

They have streamlined their "festival seating" process so you don't have to stand in the line for an hour to try to be near the front of your boarding group in order to get a seat in the same row with your kids/husband.

The flight started boarding exactly on time. The staff was friendly.

The plane was full, as airplanes always seem to be these days (remember the "good old days" when you had a hope of having the entire row to yourself, or at least an empty middle seat? Those days are long gone...). But the flight attendants were cheerful and brought everyone drinks quickly, and let you keep the entire can / bottle of whatever you ordered -- and then they came around later and offered more!

They have never offered full meals on Southwest, but these days, for longer flights, you do get crackers and/or cookies in addition to the pack of peanuts, and they cheerfully let you bring aboard whatever other food you want to bring.

They gave me a deck of cards so I could play with the kids on the flight. It's been years since any airline has given me a deck of cards!

The flight attendants had a sense of humor and were friendly, even talking and joking around with me and my son as we waited in line so he could use the bathroom on board.

They didn't demand a return of all "service items" on the descent, so I was cheerfully allowed to keep my little cup of water in case my son needed it.

And they seem to have fixed that air pressure issue anyway, so we didn't even need the water; my ears barely even "popped" on the way down, and my kids had no problems either.

The plane arrived half an hour early at our destination, and they were organized enough to have found an open gate so we didn't waste that "extra" time we had gained in the air by waiting on the tarmac for a gate to open.

They smiled and said "goodbye" and "thanks for flying with us" as we departed. The one flight attendant we had talked to while waiting in line for the bathroom even remembered the conversation and said, "Have a great time at grandpa's house!" to my little guy.

They unloaded the luggage quickly so that we were driving away from the airport less than twenty minutes after landing.

I didn't need to call their customer service department, so I don't know whether they still try to teach their customers deep breathing exercises while they wait on hold... but that was so funny I almost hope they kept that feature!

All I can say is, wow, what a change from 6 years ago. I'm even looking forward to the return flight.

So, kudos to Southwest for solving many of their customer service problems. If the return flight is as nice as Saturday's flight was, it truly will be my new favorite airline. In fact, I'm so confident that it will be a great flight that I'm telling you all right now, you should definitely fly Southwest any chance you get. They are practically always the least expensive airline, and now they actually have friendly flight attendants and good service!

On the other hand, if the return flight is as bad as the one 6 years ago, I'll be sure to let all 21 of you know about it so you can avoid them in the future.

(That'll teach 'em!!)


SkylersDad said...

We generally get treated pretty well traveling with Skyler, because it is kind of obvious we need a lot of help! But I remember leaving Seattle one time, going through the security line. They always pull him around to the side, hand wand him in his chair, then we rejoin and are on our way. We had little 4 foot nothing Vietnamese boat lady TSA person over on the side telling Skyler repeatedly "You get up!" in broken English. Skyler sat there grinning at her as she got increasingly agitated, while I flagged down manager dude. He was very apologetic and went and relieved the boat lady.

Green said...

This was an excellent story, thank you.

Lisa said...

I've had great flights and crappy ones too. Southwest was always great... my bad experiences are always with Delta.

Fancy Schmancy said...

I'm so sorry you had that bad experience the first time, I'm glad this one is better. Maybe you could cut and paste this post and send it to their customer service, along with flight information. I bet it would be nice for them to get the opposite of a complaint that they can pass on to the specific people who made it a better experience for you.