“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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53 Comments on "“Southwest Sucks” Highlights the Complexity Involved in Airline Customer Service"

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David SF eastbay
Member
Like you said, we are all people and people love to over react and twist facts arounds. That seems to happen a lot, and not just air travel. But the way air travel is these days, you can be treated badly by airline personal, but you don’t have the right anymore to respond to your treatment while at the airport or in the air. If you do the airline employee can get pissed and have you arrested. Granted the flying public can be very hard to deal with, but so can airline staff. Seems to me the attendant at the… Read more »
David SF eastbay
Member

Oh I forgot to say, good move on adding the year to your blog dates that someone suggested.

Benji
Guest

What a great, unique post. Interesting story and well-written by you.

Keith L.
Guest

Cranky:

Many of us that read your blog frequently, know that you really like Southwest. I remember that you even had your picture taken with one of their head honchos.

I wonder if you would have “given them the benefit of doubt” if this incident happened on United Airlines? Would you have said it was another “United broke my guitar” moment?

What about if it had happened on your other favorite “whipping boy” Alitalia??

Just wondering :)

Bob SFO
Guest
I do a lot of business travel with airlines, and over the past couple of years, a lot with Southwest. When I find myself dealing with a travel related problem with airline personnel, I try to follow the rule of stopping, thinking and then responding, calmly to a situation. I almost always get my problem resolved. If the person that I am dealing with is under the gun, I simply ask them to stop and take a deep breath for a second and then try to respond again. That usually works. But I always start with controlling myself first.
SEAN
Guest
Who remembers the NW PR disaster a few years ago? A flight from Jamaica to Detroit via Tampa landed in a horiffic snowstorm & wasn’t able to reach the gate. After several hours the passengers became ressless & nearly rioted because nobody came to assist them. It was reported that some passengers were trying to open the emergency slides & the flight atendents worned that opening the slides is a federal crime & charges will bee braught. Meanwhile the pilot having no luck reaching NW officials made a bold dessision to call the CEO at his home & told him… Read more »
Brad
Guest
I have been traveling for business and pleasure for over 30years, and what I fail to understand anymore, is the level of anger associated with incidents. While I understand that 8-9 hour tarmac delays have happened, I feel like they are so rare, as not to be made a “federal” issue. I don’t live in the world that many of the people who complain all the time do. I know that there are no guarantees. If you leave your house, you are open to the possibility of travel disruptions and disappointments. This anger I see now in airports and on… Read more »
Donna b.
Guest

It is people like you who accept the crap so the airlines keep getting away with more and more customer abuse. We all need to NOT accept the bad treatment, demand refunds if necessary and stand united against the poor treatment. Weenies like you are no help to improve the situation. You just sit back and take whatever abuse the airlines dishes out, so expect the crap to continue.

FBKSan
Guest
It’s great that this was resolved at least partially to the passenger’s satisfaction, but how much does this really tell us about Southwest’s overall customer service response? Along the lines Keith L.’s comments, what if the guy hadn’t contacted you but instead just contacted Southwest’s generic customer relations? Rather than forward the guy’s compliant (to a high-level employee from a prominent, well-connected blogger), an interesting experiment would have been to suggest the guy write in on his own. Then see how Southwest responds and only intervene after the fact. I see a lot of these consumer-champion type blog posts in… Read more »
jaybru
Member
Working life, whatever your line of work, would be great if you never had to deal with the public. They, including myself, can be so impossible. We come to our flights in every condition imagineable, often not too good [reference: going to a wake]. And, weather happens; things break. Whatever we do, we hope we have planned for every contingency, in or out of our control. Yet, so often, it seems, the airlines act like this “problem” you have is the first such happening in the entire history of the company, and we haven’t a clue how to satisfy you.… Read more »
obmark1
Member
Brad makes an excellent point. There are so many varibles that can arise when traveling that you simply have to go into it with the attitude of feeling lucky that the entire system works at all. I suppose this sounds as if I have low expectations, I don’t….but I think this is simply the reality of air travel in America right now. In my 25 years of traveling, there have been many disappointments, however, I have never once, raised my voice or “gotten into it” with an airline employee. I have had many conversations, but always treating the employee with… Read more »
Paula Berg - Southwest Airlines
Guest
FBKSan / Cranky – I was just about to chime in… It’s a fair question. As Cranky stated, I began my career with Southwest Airlines in our Customer Relations Department, and I can confirm that every call, letter, and email sent to our Customer Relations Department, receives a personal and researched response. Of course, some matters require more research and time than others. And, if needed, gathering all of the facts, information, and reports from Employees can take several days – especially if the Employees involved are in flight and traveling around the country. In this case, I believe the… Read more »
Bill
Guest
What the “let’s look at the other side of the story” approach fails to take into account is the extremely high likelihood that all air travelers encounter one or more problems the majority of the time these days. In other words, if the airlines were run anywhere even close to correctly, the incidents drop, people are less frustrated, less yelling, less stress. The article tries to let the perps at the airline off the hook essentially because the were overwhelmed themselves. The point is, they were overwhelmed by the faults in the airlines own systems. Systems which by the way,… Read more »
Paula Berg - Southwest Airlines
Guest

Bill – do you really think that’s true? The DOT numbers for ontime performance, baggage handling and customer complaints seem to suggest otherwise. I fly almost every week, and regardless of the airline, I usually arrive ontime and without incident.

Kathy
Guest

Actually, I do blame the flight attendant. When I was one, I never took the word of a passenger about problems with another passenger. A 2 minute conversation with him would have resolved the issue.

kereiland
Member

What is so helpful in your documentation of this unfortunate event is that it illuminates how not making time to listen to a customer initially can compound everyone’s frustration to the point that it ends up taking much more time to resolve. Thanks for pointing out the nuances of situation.

David SF eastbay
Member

@ Kathy:

I agree with Kathy, the time it took to deny the passenger to board had to be longer then just asking the gate agents opinion on the matter. Also since everything was happening in the gate area, how would the flight attendant know what had taken place to have the finaly say.

David SF eastbay
Member
Brett what was said about you getting better treatment is true and to be expected. With blogs, twitter, and everything else out there today, company’s must have their customer service people on the look out for anything coming in from certain ‘key’ people. It’s no different then the food critic from the local paper walking into a restaurant and getting treated better. We’d all like to have an ‘in’ with someone if we can get better treatment or something resolved. If using your name can help someone, then that’s a good thing. As long as the company involved doesn’t resolve… Read more »
BJ
Guest
I like the article. Too often when travelling we see people abusing staff who have no influence over the problems that are being encountered. Many people, as we well know, check their brains in with their baggage. Why is it that we wait patiently at a shopping centre but expect to be treated like gods when we are going on our $19 flight? Yes we don’t know all the facts but I’m with the agent. Having tired, drunk and/or abusive passengers makes the flight hell for the rest of us (the majority). However, not all staff are great at customer… Read more »
Bicoastal
Guest

You are an apologist for WN. If this was United, you wouldn’t even try to put it in perspective, but you’d assume the passenger was correct.

Stephen Dutton
Guest
Both sides of the arguement is correct, LCC’s have created a barrier in that Public Relations simply don’t exist, it is the cost factor of less personnel (foot soldiers) to deal with the problems plus the factor you can’t even speak directly to anyone any more, (JetBlue?), on the other side of the concourse the passengers are simply too demanding and are constantly venting and if everything doesn’t come up 120% they get on their high horse and start demanding when it is usually their own fault, no ticket, late, no passport, excess baggage charges..so on, more communication on both… Read more »
Bill Ward
Guest
A few years back there was a TV show called “Airport” that featured Southwest employees and their dealings with travelers. Based on what I saw of Southwest customer service on that show – which presumably was meant to highlight the good side of the experience – I will never fly that airline. The style of being informal yet officious which I saw represented again and again was a huge turn-off. I’ve flown Southwest once, years ago, and it looked like it was run by a bunch of amateurs. And to not even have the piece of mind of a seat… Read more »
John
Guest

Southwest is my hometown airline; they are leaps ahead of the monster over in Fort Worth (AA). Do they make mistakes? sure, but this WASN’T a mistake, this was a cautionary action that should be taken. What if this guy was drunk and decided to storm the cockpit or attack a flight attendant.

frank
Guest
@ John: =========================================== WHAT WAS THIS? A cautionary measure? OR A MISTAKE BY SOUTHWEST EMPLOYEES? http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/09/13/travel/main3257959.shtml A second young woman has come forward to claim that Southwest Airlines employees made her cover up on a recent flight, leading jet-setters to ask: Will my outfit fly? Setara Qassim said a flight attendant confronted her during the trip from Tucson, Ariz., to Burbank, Calif., and asked whether she had a sweater to go over her green halter-style dress. Qassim, 21, told KNBC-TV in Los Angeles she was forced to wrap a blanket around herself for the rest of the flight. She complained… Read more »
Jim
Guest
I have never flown on WN. Not for any particular reason. They just never went where I needed at the time I needed to. I have no problems with policies or practices being applied by WN, provided everyone gets the opportunity to use them to their own benefit. The next time I see a colicky baby being trundling along on the jetway all I plam to comment that I have concerns that the baby will cry and disturb my flight. Surely, my expectations that the baby and their family will be VDB’d are not unreasonable? Right, I mean the whole… Read more »
aguyjr
Member
I think I am the only human being on the planet who thinks Southwest is overrated. Everyone raves, and raves and raves about this company, but I just don’t see it. For starters, where do they fly? Nowhere. Prague? Honolulu? Athens? Puerta Vallarta? (My trips the last 18 months). They don’t fly anywhere significant. Second, the places they do fly, you have to fly w/out knowing what seat you’re in. It’s all steerage. I said it before: If Southwest implemented ASSIGNED SEATING, their revenues would go up. I once thought that the “every man for him/herself seating” was cool, but… Read more »
Bill
Guest
@ Paula Berg – Southwest Airlines: Yes, I think it’s true. I have flow regularly for business before, during and following 911, and things have continued to spiral down. Traffic reduced? Then cut flights, cut staff, jam planes, let the passenger take the hindmost. The point of my comment was that t makes no sense (to me) to defend the attendants involved because they were “overwhelmed”. If so, it was because of the inefficient systems and poorly staffed airports the airlines maintain. Let me just say this: If I did my job the way the airlines do theirs, I’d be… Read more »
struss
Guest

i used to be on the front lines, during the late ’60s and thru the ’70s in the West for an airline that doesn’t exist anymore. been there, done that. i’ve been called every name, and combination of names, that i can think of, and had a name tag ripped off my shirt. and the flying public wonders if we get a little gun-shy?

David SF eastbay
Member
Well Cranky after this blog, if Darius Chappille contacts you for help getting a refund or something from WN, don’t help him. He was the guy on a Oakland – Las Vegas flight yesterday that caused the plane to return to OAK so he could be arrested. After the flight took off he started yelling, exposed himself to a woman, hit her, hit another woman, hit her husband, got completely naked, and then threw up. I guess he was dressed ok (up until he took his clothes off) and didn’t write ‘Southwest Sucks’ on his boarding pass so was able… Read more »
Steve
Guest
Drew wrote: I think I am the only human being on the planet who thinks Southwest is overrated. Everyone raves, and raves and raves about this company, but I just don’t see it. For starters, where do they fly? Nowhere. Prague? Honolulu? Athens? Puerta Vallarta? (My trips the last 18 months). They don’t fly anywhere significant. Second, the places they do fly, you have to fly w/out knowing what seat you’re in. It’s all steerage. I said it before: If Southwest implemented ASSIGNED SEATING, their revenues would go up. I once thought that the “every man for him/herself seating” was… Read more »
aguyjr
Member

Steve,

Of course not. Continental has issues like every other airline.

But I’m really tired of, every time an airline has a problem, people shout: “See, this would NEVER happen if they had flown Southwest.”

Which is fine, but, again, where do they go?

The Traveling Optimist
Guest
How Orwellian this all is. Whether the airline over reacted or the customer did in fact deserve to be removed from the flight to me isn’t the issue. The ugly, filthy truth in this incident is what it says about society in general. All anyone has to do is raise a flag to a service provider about someone else in the vicinity and suddenly everything short of criminal charges are pressed without due process. That grieving customer did not receive due process in any form from the airline because someone else’s sensibilities were offended. Airlines have failed miserably in situations… Read more »
SAN Greg
Guest

Those who know my posts know that I am no fan of SWA, but I have to say that some of the attacks posted are unusually bitter. FA’s are only human and even if they have one tenth of the amount of “bad days” as some, they will still have bad days. Forgive and move on.

Stephen Dutton
Guest

@ Drew:
“For starters, where do they fly? Nowhere. Prague? Honolulu? Athens? Puerta Vallarta? (My trips the last 18 months). They don’t fly anywhere significant”.????

Isn’t Southwest a Domestic USA Carrier?….Honolulu maybe, but to fly to Greece on a local 737?????, I hope you turn up at the right Teminal Drew (Its the International one by the way)

Pete Mitchell
Guest

Southwest does suck! Who is the flight attendant to deny boarding based on his opinion? Thats what you get when you fly the “big trailer park in the sky”.

Another Upset Customer
Guest
All I can say is that they need to actually take the time to get the full story. DO NOT give any more power to the FN airlines, they have us by the you know what already. I am sick of people making excuses for the airlines, I really am. If there was an issue with a passenger in the boarding area, then you need to take care of it there and GET THE FULL STORY. Don’t wait until it is time to board and deny a person that right. All that does is make you and him look terrible… Read more »
philliphullemerson.com
Guest

WHY should any of us take poor customer service and condone it. Was on a fliht the other day from Den to vegas, ask the attendaent for a tomoatoe jusice with a slice of lemon, she responded You need to fly United for lemon, not real bright these guys, really makes you wonder about us putting our lives in the hands of these burger flippers

pat
Guest
I just got off the phone with Southwest after waiting on hold (for the second time today) in excees of 45 minutes. All I wanted to do was fly home early one my precious rapid rewards free flight. I tried to change the flight early today to go home today and the website kept giving me an “Oops” message saying that the site couldn’t help me currently, please try back. So I called this afternoon. After 40 minutes on hold, my call inexplicably got disconnected (probably a cell phone issue). So I decided to forego the flight today and try… Read more »
raju
Guest
im no fan of sw, in fact, they upset me by messing up their rewards program, i have one last free flight with them, and im done choosing them…i had a bad experience with usair recently, they left early and without me…but with my bags. in the end, the gate agent didnt have time for me either, so i was getting more upset to the point that she gave me time to find proof that they left way too early. because of this, she bumped somebody else on the next flight (sorry to that person) and gave me a seat… Read more »
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[…] “Southwest Sucks” Highlights the Complexity Involved in Airline …Aug 20, 2009 … I received an email from a reader who had a really poor experience flying Southwest. He wrote “Southwest Sucks” on his boarding pass, and … […]

EARL Wesson
Guest

So how long have you worked for Southwest?

Matt
Guest
totally unacceptable. not a shred of justification for this flight attendant’s behavior. Southwest does suck, worst airline I’ve ever had the misfortune of flying. Moreover, airlines, airports, their staff and security in general all suck. What a bunch of retards. The jobs pay almost nothing which is why they have no quality candidates applying, it is frustrating to have this collective pack of mutants bossing us around, alternating between treating us like children and terrorists. God I hate flying, wish I never had to. And it would be fine if it weren’t for dealing with all the fuktard people that… Read more »
Wayne Conger
Guest
OK. Try to explain this. Booked a Vegas vacation for me and my wife for her birthday. Booked with southwest. The offer said “included 2 free tickets to Soul to Soul Show” I upgraded to a Lux Suite at the Venetian. When I arrived they knew nothing about show tickets. Since then I contacted the credit card bank and they contacted SW. I was told that that was an offer and not a contract. So they can offer something but unless you get a contract you have nothing. What a rip off. I still have the offer paper work if… Read more »
Korey
Guest
Ok let me tell you a little story about South West airlines. I got to the Denver airport last night to catch my flight from Denver to my home in WI. The plane was 2 and a half hours late so my friend and I went and eat and had a few beers. Finally we boarded the plane at 10:00 PM 3 hours after my original boarding time. We took off and my friend and I had befriended a new person sitting with us so we began to talk and have fun. I was sitting in the last seats on… Read more »
CalNews.com Editor
Guest

Southwest Airlines = A$$holes

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