“Southwest Sucks” Highlights the Complexity Involved in Airline Customer Service

I received an email from a reader who had a really poor experience flying Southwest. He wrote “Southwest Sucks” on his boarding pass, and he wasn’t allowed to fly. Sounds ridiculous, right? Well yeah, but it’s not that simple. I’m sure that’s how most media outlets would pick up on the story, but there’s a lot more to it. This is a great example of how hard it can be to deliver 100% great customer service at all times.

Let’s go over the whole story. This customer had just had a really tough week. He was traveling to a family member’s wake and because of problems on the outbound flight related to weather, he missed it. This was exacerbated by poor communication so he was not happy, as you can imagine. By the time he came back, he was already at wit’s end. He tried to explain his frustrations to the customer service agent at his gate, but she couldn’t make time for him and suggested he contact customer relations. He got frustrated and wrote “Southwest Sucks” on his boarding pass and sat down.

The next thing he knows, he was trying to board the airplane when a flight attendant refused him boarding and he had to take a different flight. Sounds like a pretty bad case of customer handling, right? Well, yes, but possibly no. We need to think about this from every angle.

From his angle, there’s no question that this was the topper at the end of a horrible travel experience. I actually connected him with Southwest, and they were very sorry to hear about it. They apologized that he had such a difficult experience and offered him compensation.

But that doesn’t mean the flight attendant who kicked him off was completely in the wrong. Though I haven’t heard any report from that flight attendant, the other crew members said that a family onboard complained to the flight attendant that there was a passenger in the gate area causing trouble and they wanted to make sure they didn’t sit next to him.

Now, if you’re a flight attendant and you have someone on the plane who says someone else is causing trouble, you need to take that seriously. You could end up stuck at 35,000 feet with someone who really is causing trouble and bad things can happen. So the flight attendant acted under time pressure and made the decision not to allow him to fly.

Had she known what the customer had gone through and why he was so frustrated, I would hope she would have gladly let him on and maybe even have given him a free drink for his troubles. But she didn’t know the whole story, and she really couldn’t. She had to make a judgment call, and it turned out to be wrong . . . but only with perfect hindsight. With the information she had and the time pressure she was under, it may have been the right thing.

But we can back up even further here. Had that gate agent simply been willing to listen to him for a minute, he may not have written “Southwest Sucks” on his boarding pass and none of this would have happened at all.

But we don’t know what was happening with the gate agent at the time. She could have been overwhelmed from issues she had earlier in the day. Maybe she had personal problems and just wasn’t on her game. We’ll never know, and it doesn’t necessarily matter. The point is that this kind of stuff happens to everyone. We’re all people.

The reality is that just like in airline accidents, it takes a million little things to come together to erupt into a customer service issue like this. It’s going to happen to every airline at some point, and the key is to see how that airline responds.

Southwest handled this very well, in the end. I sent the email (with his permission) to Southwest social media guru Paula Berg, and she jumped on it. She immediately reached out to find out all sides of what happened, and within a couple of days she was on the phone with the customer apologizing that he had such a difficult experience flying Southwest.

Will it make up for the poor experience? No, not completely. But I imagine that he will now consider flying them again because they showed that they do care about trying to make things right after the fact.

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