UPDATE: Did Google send you here? God bless Google. Let me sum it up for you. I believe that Southwest is not a family friendly airline, particularly if you’re traveling with small children. I fly the airline frequently as a business traveler and will continue to do so. Now want to know why it’s only a great airline sans the kiddos? Carry on for the long version…
A year and a half ago I wrote about why bloggers should never write a complaint post. I’ve re-posted it a couple of times since then and have talked about it while speaking at conferences. I stand by it…for the most part. But today something happened that was so aggravating to me that I feel compelled to share it with my readers. I’m not writing this to say that you should not fly Southwest Airlines, although many of you may have made that decision based on the other problems they’ve faced (for the record, no one has ever asked me to stop those lingering kisses I give my husband on flights…). Instead I am writing to say why I will never fly Southwest Airlines again with children, and why you as a consumer should be aware of the issues you may face if you do. Why do I need to tell you this? Because over the last couple of years I have sent messages to tens of thousands of people supporting Southwest Airlines only to realize now that I may have led people astray. In fact, just this morning when this all began I tweeted the following:
If I’m going to give you the good, then you deserve to hear the bad.
But first we need to get in the way back machine…
My husband and I dated long distance – like 1600 miles long distance – for the first two years of our relationship. Over that time we became very used to air travel, and I personally came to enjoy everything from the peaceful time to grade papers to the French bread pizza on the Friday evening direct flight from Dulles to Austin. However, when it came time to fly from D.C. to Texas with our ten month old daughter, I was nervous. Okay, I was scared. She was born two months early and had a myriad of health problems from gross motor skill delays to a hole in her heart. Travel with any infant is difficult, but add in the complications of frozen breast milk, medications, and a nervous mom and things get a little tricky. We booked our flights with Southwest and assumed – never assume – that we would pre-board with our daughter just like we would had we flown any other airline in the world. What happened instead was that we were allowed to board after the sixty people in the A group. Did I mention it was a continuing flight?
If you do not know the difference between a continuing flight and an originating flight, here’s a crash course, and please don’t ever forget this information. You should ask. You should always, always ask. An originating flight means that when you get on that plane, you are the first group of people to be on that plane for that trip. You are not getting on the second, third, fourth leg of a flight and joining the people who have already boarded. You’re the beginning. The alpha. The original passengers.
If you fly Southwest and your flight is continuing, your A, B, and C group passes actually become D, E, and F. The people who boarded the first legs of the flight have their seats…and they’re not giving them up for anything.
My husband and I boarded the flight with our daughter only to find that there were not three seats anywhere near each other. We did find two seats so I could sit with my daughter, but the closest we could find for my husband was back a few rows. We asked many, many people if they would give up a seat so that we could all three sit together, and no one would move.
Was this necessary? Of course not. Would it have been a kind thing to do for a scared, new mom of a sick child? I think so. In fact, I’ve often been asked to do the same, even giving up seats I paid extra to snag, and I always say yes because I’d want that kindness extended to me if I were in their shoes. Apparently there’s no airline seat selection karma.
The flight attendants said they were not allowed to request that people move so that families can sit together, so they did nothing to help us. That three hour plus flight with my baby was the worst flight of my life and I vowed to never take my family on Southwest again. However, I continued to fly with them years later when I began traveling for work, and flights with them as a single person were always problem free.
Then Southwest added the Early Bird ticketing option. I have sung the praises of Southwest Airlines Early Bird far and wide to anyone who will listen. For just $12 per person per leg (post updated to reflect a change in pricing), you can be automatically checked in for your flight. I have never gotten a spot higher than A31 with this system (although A group is not guaranteed), and we have always found seats together because it places us 30 to 45 people ahead of the family boarding! Once other airlines began charging you extra to breathe, I started flying Southwest exclusively, and I fly often. I mean, really, a lot. Look:
When it came time to travel to Florida for the 40th anniversary of the opening of Walt Disney World, I booked my family’s flight with Southwest, paid the $80 for the Early Bird on all four tickets in both directions, and relaxed knowing that we would have a great vacation. Then the last week happened, and I woke up this morning feeling like getting my kids to a 7:30 a.m. flight was not the wisest option in the world. Luckily, Southwest does not charge you to change your flight. Seriously, I’m telling you that there are so many things that I love about this airline! But it’s not worth it anymore with kids because…
I called reservations this morning around 9:30 and asked if it was possible to move my family’s tickets to a later flight tomorrow morning while still keeping the Early Bird reservation. I know that tomorrow is tomorrow – as in soon – so I asked. The woman was fair and said, “Well let’s put in your information and see…” and after a few moments she confirmed that yes, the Early Bird feature that I had already paid for would transfer if we moved our flights to a later time tomorrow. After she clicked on her keyboard for a little while and took my credit card information (the new time was a slightly more expensive flight), she confirmed with me one more time that I wanted to make the change and one more time I confirmed with her that the Early Bird transferred with the new flights.
Yes, she said. Yes, you are all set with Early Bird, same confirmation number for the reservation, everything is set.
And then I went about my morning. If you’ve ever flown Southwest without the Early Bird upgrade, you know that when it approaches twenty four hours before a flight, you begin stalking the check-in page. You’ve got to beat all those other people to that A boarding group, so you become a crazy person trying to click at EXACTLY twenty four hours out. I didn’t do that because my $80 bought me peace of mind. About 10:40 I decided I’d print out my boarding passes and leisurely went to the page only to find that we were in the middle of the B boarding group. What happened?
I called Southwest back expecting them to apologize for the technical glitch and reprint my passes. After all, I have flown them enough – seriously, all the time - that I know they hold passes A1 through A15. If ever there was a time to hand one of those babies out to someone, it was now when this poor woman who has forked over thousands to them just got screwed by a computer error.
Except it wasn’t a computer error. It was the human error of reservation agent 23635 (name withheld to protect her since karma is already coming for her) who had assured me not once, but TWICE that we would be in the Early Bird ticketing system. It turns out that if you change your flight less than twenty five hours before the flight time, the Early Bird reservation is forfeited. I changed my flight twenty four hours and forty-two minutes before my flight. She knew this. She made the change.
So there I was, out the $80, out the $388 I had paid to let my kids sleep in a couple of hours, and booked on a flight where for two plus hours my family would be sitting separately.
Was my world ending? No, of course not. Was it right? No. Of course not.
So I asked them what they could do about this. In general, companies can always do something. Heck, in general even I can always do something. If you win a giveaway on my site and the prize never shows up, I buy it and send it to you. That’s life. That’s integrity. So I waited to hear something pleasant like, “Just a moment m’am, let me fix this problem for you.” What I got instead was, “We are sorry, this was definitely a mistake on our end, but there’s nothing we can do for you.” I reminded them about those first fifteen A tickets, and after first acting like they don’t exist – I seriously fly Southwest A LOT - they finally said that only Customer Relations could move my ticket to one of those slots so that I could board in the A group like I had paid to do. Five agents later I spoke to a Customer Relations Supervisor named Lila (oh what the heck, why not just use names) who told me that they could not do anything for me regarding tomorrow’s flight. Yes, it was their mistake. Yes, they acted in error. Yes, they got me into this mess, but they were not going to get me out of it. The best she said she could do was refund me the price of the upgrades, but that would happen seven to ten business days after the conclusion of the second leg of her flight.
Two hours, five agents later and I’m on the phone at this point because of principle, because if I patronize your business loyally and shout from the rooftops – or Twitter – how great you are, then you should stand by that great status and right the wrong, no matter how small. And then I hear this, “I’d like to offer you a $100 voucher to fly with us again because of your trouble today.”
And then I hear myself saying, “Thank you for the generous offer, but with all due respect I will have to decline. I have many trips coming up in the next two months, but they will not be with your airline.”
So why will I not be flying Southwest Airlines again with my family? Because if I can’t trust that you will make even your little mistakes right, then I can’t fly with you. I can’t give you my money. I can’t give you my support. I can’t travel with my kids on your planes no matter how funny your flight attendants are or how free it is to pack my big suitcases.
And how did the story end? Well if you like math like I do you could figure out quickly while Lila with her hands tied was talking that $388 plus $40 = $428 and that ticket A2 actually only costs $137 more so while she was processing my refund on my upgrades, I was getting out my credit card. As she continued to tell me that there was nothing she could do to improve the situation and ensure that my family would sit together, I figured out that if I bought a business class ticket – one of those A group spots they refused to give me despite my Early Bird purchase – that I could hold four seats for my family. Despite them not because of them, I’ll be the second person on that flight tomorrow, all with a positive balance of $291. Had they made the problem right and changed my ticket, they would have kept my business and saved nearly $300. I always win. But I’m still not flying Southwest with my kids.
Postscript: Part of the confusion was that each of the five people with whom I spoke gave me different information. When I asked Customer Relations Supervisor Lila about that, she said that’s because people at different levels have access to different amounts of information. When I pointed out that that seemed to cause problems and seemed to be forcing their agents to mis-communicate, she, well, agreed. Huh.
Postscript 2 (as if I hadn’t already made you read way too many words for a blog post): Even as I sit here high and mighty on my morals, I know it will be hard to quit Southwest with their flexible flight changing and their WiFi on select flights. Mmmmm, WiFi. But come ON, Southwest. I called. I asked. I followed due diligence. Why’d you have to play me like that? Meh. I’m so going to end up going back…
Last Update…I Swear: Southwest Social Media looked into the situation and the refund on the upgrades was their only course of action. I would have, of course, preferred to not be refunded the upgrades and kept the Early Bird service that I was charged for and told I would receive. I do appreciate their effort. In the future, I would just prefer consistency and follow-through. When my kids are a bit older and I don’t mind them sitting five rows away from me, I’ll likely fly them again. But I stand by advice that families with small children should book their flights with airlines that allow you to choose your seats before checking in.