My family (wife and daughters ages 6 and 3) and I just returned to Minneapolis from our trip to Florida over winter break and just when I thought customer service for airlines could not be any worse, Southwest Airlines went and proved me wrong. Everything I had ever heard about Southwest had been fairly positive, but the experience we had on December 31st left me doubting I will ever fly with them again.
Our flight was supposed to fly from Ft. Lauderdale to Minneapolis via Tampa. While waiting for our plane in Ft. Lauderdale, I received an automated call from Southwest Airlines saying that our flight was going to be delayed 2 hours. I immediately went to the Southwest Airlines rep to see about our other options for getting home since we would be missing our connection in Tampa. The man at the counter told me and the other passengers that he did not know anything about the flight being delayed and that he would let us know when he knew more. Five minutes passed and I got another call saying that the flight was delayed even longer. Again I went back to the counter and was told to just have a seat and be patient and he would let me know more when he knew more. It was disconcerting to say the least that I knew more about the status of my flight than the gentleman who was in charge of the flight.
After awhile we were all told that those of us who were supposed to continue out of Tampa to various cities in the Midwest would make our connections because they would hold the planes for us in Tampa. We all boarded the plane, buckled in, and got ready for take off. After 15 minutes, the pilot made an announcement that they would need to be switching pilots because the pilots of the plane at the next gate over had logged too many hours and needed to switch out with the pilots on our plane. I just went along with it and thought that we would still have time to make our connection. Another 15 minutes passed and the pilot came on again saying that we will be leaving shortly but they need to take some fuel out of the plane first. Apparently the plane we were on had too much fuel because it was originally supposed to fly to Albany, NY, and since now it was only going to Tampa, it did not need all of the fuel and they would siphon some of it off and then we would be on our way. We would be cutting it close, but since they were holding the plane, we would be okay. 15 minutes pass again and the flight attendant then comes on saying that anyone connecting out of Tampa to the Midwest would need to deboard since they could no longer hold the planes in Tampa for us. We would all need to visit the counters to get rebooked.
I managed to agree to get rebooked to Minneapolis via Orlando and Chicago. The Southwest agent agreed to put us up in a hotel room in Orlando that night once we arrived there and then we would fly to Chicago and Minneapolis the next morning. I took the voucher and we continued to wait at the airport until 6pm that night, putting us at the 8 hour mark for the day at the Ft. Lauderdale airport.
We finally arrived in Orlando and caught the hotel shuttle to the Hilton Garden Inn where I presented my voucher to the front desk agent who then replied that they had no room for us. I was stunned and thought he must have been joking. I said excuse me and asked him to repeat what he said, to which he again replied that they were oversold that night and had no more rooms. He said that no one from Southwest ever contacted him and thus they did not have any more rooms to give. The agent was nice enough to contact other hotels nearby to see if they had rooms, but with no luck. Fuming at this point in time, I asked if he could provide me with the number for Southwest Airlines. I called Southwest Airlines and talked to a customer service representative and explained that we had been rebooked through Orlando and I was given a voucher for a hotel room at a hotel that did not have any rooms and was now standing in the lobby of the hotel at 9pm with my wife and two small children and no place to sleep. I could not make this next part up if I tried. The customer service rep’s response was that she could not help me, but that if I contacted customer relations during business hours, Monday thru Friday from 9am-5pm, they would be happy to help me. So, her brilliant solution to the problem that her company had created was that I should stand around in the hotel lobby with my wife and daughters until 9am the next morning at which point I could voice my concern to the customer relations department.
I then proceeded to hang up on the woman and catch the airport shuttle back to the airport to speak face to face with a ticket agent at the Southwest counter. When I explained my situation to the man, he did not understand why the agent in Ft. Lauderdale had not contacted the hotel to request a room and was nice enough to get us a room at another hotel near the Hilton Garden Inn. I then caught the shuttle to the new hotel and along the way, the plot began to thicken. Also on the shuttle was a man in his early 20s who was telling everyone on the shuttle that he gave up his seat on a Southwest flight to a passenger on standby and in return he was given a free hotel night in Orlando and 2 free roundtrip tickets. He then went on to say that this worked out great because he wanted to stay in Orlando anyway and go to a New Year’s Eve party at his friend’s house and he would not even be using the hotel room except to take a shower before going to party.
So, in the end, this was the understanding I gained from Southwest Airlines policies:
If a passenger with two small children is displaced and misses the connecting flight, they are given a voucher to a hotel that does not have a room and receives the recommendation that they wait in the lobby of a hotel on New Year’s Eve with their children until business hours the next day so that customer relations can deal with the problem.
If a passenger willingly gives up his or her seat so that they can stay and party another night in the city, they receive a free hotel night in a room they may or may not use in addition to two free roundtrip tickets for the next year.
Sounds perfectly reasonable to me…