"Customer Service" at Southwest Airlines.

If getting there is half the fun, I don't want the other half, thanks.

The family and I are on our way to New York at the moment. It's been too long since I've had a good slice of pizza and a good bagel, and visiting family and friends is a great excuse to fix that problem. We're in transit instead of there right now for a variety of reasons, mostly related to the weather. But not entirely. A large chunk of the problem can be chalked up to Southwest Airlines. An even larger chunk of my current state of anger comes from what they term "customer service" here at Chicago Midway.

If you've been watching the news, you probably know that it rained in Houston today. A lot. There was thunder, lightning, and all of the fun that goes along with getting grazed by a tropical system. Being sane, rational humans, we were totally unsurprised to find that our departure time had been pushed back by three hours. We did expect, being sane, rational humans, that once Southwest let us get on the airplane they would be ready to depart. Silly us.

The airplane for our scheduled 1:45 flight from Houston to Chicago arrived at about 4:30, and the ground crew did an absolutely fantastic job turning the plane around - if anyone's looking for a NASCAR pit crew, those guys could probably do it. The gate agent moved fast, the flight attendants from both the incoming and outgoing flights helped clear the plane, and they had everyone on board before 5. As the last people got on the plane, one of the flight attendants got on the intercom and asked everyone to get in their seats quickly. Another line of thunderstorms was approaching, she said, and they wanted to get us off the ground quickly so that we wouldn't be held up any further by the weather. Miraculously, every person on the fully loaded 737 did exactly that. We sat down, fastened our seatbelts, and waited.

And waited.

After about five minutes, the flight attendant got back on the intercom and apologized for rushing us. It seemed that the plane wasn't actually quite ready to go just yet, because there were still a couple of empty seats up front that they needed to fill before we could leave. Two empty seats on the whole darn airplane, and wouldn't you know it, they were both in the cockpit. So we waited another 25 minutes to fix that little problem. Then we pushed back from the gate, taxied out to the threshold, and waited another half hour for that line of thunderstorms the flight attendants had warned us about to pass. We finally got in to Chicago's Midway Airport at 8:09 pm. Our connecting flight had departed at 8:00. And that's where our fun with Southwest really began.

It started at the arrival gate, when I tried to find the "customer service supervisor" that the flight attendants had said would meet the plane. Nobody was at the gate, and it took a few minutes to find out which podium the guy was hiding behind. He promptly informed me that since the next leg of my flight was on ATA, I'd have to go to Gate B-26 to reschedule, and that there was nothing he could do. We were at A-19 at the time, so that was a bit of a hike. Got there, and there was nobody behind that counter - we had to wait 5 minutes before someone showed up. While I was looking for someone to help, I made the mistake of checking with another Southwest gate agent. This one told me that he couldn't help with tickets bought through ATA. When I told him that the tickets had been purchased through Southwest, he told me that I should call the 800 number and rebook through reservations.

When the ATA folks arrived at their gate, we were re-ticketed for the next available flight, at 6 am, and told that because we had missed the flight due to a Southwest delay, the best they could offer us was a discounted rate at a hotel. Then we went back to Southwest, where we were told that because the delay was weather-related, they were not obligated to offer us a hotel room. When I pointed out that we wouldn't have missed the connection if their pilots had been there on time, they told me that not having pilots is a weather-related problem. I asked to speak to a supervisor, and after a bit of a wait I was told that the supervisor wasn't going to come down to the gate I was at, and if I wanted to talk to her I should walk down to B-7 and find her. When I did, she told me that even if not having pilots isn't actually weather-related, they still didn't need to provide a hotel because the problem was "mostly the weather." So, no hotel.

The next adventure hit around 11, when we tried to find something softer than the concourse floor to sleep on. I found, for the first time that day, a Southwest gate agent who was courteous and helpful, and got a couple of blankets for the kids. She also mentioned that there were going to be cots set up down near the A concourse. So, tired and irritable, we packed up the stuff, and trudged down the length of one concourse and halfway up another without seeing a single cot. When I stopped and asked another Southwest gate agent, she told me that the cots were back the way we'd come. When I told her we'd been through there and there weren't any, she radioed her supervisor - the same one I'd had so much fun dealing with before - and was told that the cots were there.

They weren't.

I know this for sure because when I walked back that way an hour later (after we'd finally found some softer sleeping arrangements at the USO), there were several very tired-looking passengers looking for the legendary cots. Unless "cots" is Southwest's term for food court tables pushed against the wall, there were none in sight.

Taken individually, none of the "problems" I had with Southwest is a big deal. Unfortunately, I didn't get to take them individually. Instead, I got them all in rapid sequence. Their "customer service" at Midway yesterday managed to do nothing right. Given the number of chances they had, that's actually quite a feat. I'd be impressed, if I wasn't so thoroughly annoyed.

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I sympathize with the problems that arose from the 'almost' weather related incidents, however, the one thing the supervisor may have failed to mention was that the pilots that were not in their seats at the appropriate departure time, may, themselves, been working another flight that was also delayed by the weather. I know from experience, working in the industry for many years, (and knowing how some of the flight crew is scheduled) that many of the pilots and flight attendants are working 'reserve'; meaning that when the originally scheduled flight crew 'timed out' another had to be found for your flight (a crew that had not already flown the alotted amount of time the FAA allows per day), perhaps being called in from home or another flight. Weather creates havoc among the airline industry, no matter where it may be occuring, creating a domino effect throughout the system. Perhaps, if this supervisor could have explained the situation more effectively, instead of assuming that the passengers know how the system works, things may not have been quite as tense.

Again, I extend my sympathies to your family for having problems during your vacation - I know the airline/airport industry wishes, along with the rest of us, that they/we could predict the weather to a tee, in anticipation of diverting situations in which you found yourself.... perhaps this particular ground crew at Midway could benefit from refresher customer service courses..... I do hope your future vacations are not accompanied by tribulations such as this.

What is this sado/masochistic pleasure we get from reading other people�s travel horror stories? We feel the angst � we can all empathize � it hurts to read � yet we love the stories and can�t get enough of them.

All the best.

By Jamey Kohn (not verified) on 27 Aug 2007 #permalink

The bottom line is this: there is now total quantity but zero quality. Why? We as consumers asked for cheap cheap flights...did really think -that would enclude -quality service? It doesn't. Yes we can all travel now at cheap cheap rates and along with that big time lousy service. Welcome to the de-regulated crappy airline industry.