To Change or Not to Change? (Tales From the Field)

We were faced with quite the dilemma this week at Cranky Concierge when we had a client flying Southwest who was looking at a possible missed connection. This required us to make a judgment call and hope that it worked out right. It’s puzzles like these that I find most fascinating, and there are always multiple lessons to be learned in the end.

Our client was flying from Nashville to San Jose with a stop in Vegas. The airplane for the first flight was coming Southwest From the Fieldfrom Denver and it was late. Because of that, the short 40 minutes in between flights in Vegas meant our client was expected to miss the connection by 5 minutes.

The first question we had to ask was… is there a chance Southwest gets a new airplane to fly this? And the answer was no. Southwest hesitates to post a delay if it thinks it can find another airplane, and there was no hesitation here. It was pretty clear that this flight was waiting for that flight to come in from Denver. But could it make up any time? I suppose it’s always possible that it could make up a little time, but I wasn’t going to sit around and just hope that happened.

The next thing to do was to check whether the connecting flight would be delayed. That wasn’t the case. Everything looked good there. So it was time to look for other options. A quick search on the Southwest website showed nothing until much later in the day. So instead, I looked for later flights from Vegas to San Jose (and San Francisco) to find that it was only 2 hours later before the next flight was going, and it had room. That seemed like the best way forward.

With most airlines, we just try to “protect” the passenger on a later flight. In other words, if the passenger can make the earlier one, the reservation remains intact. But seats are held on the later flight just in case. With Southwest, I don’t think I’ve ever had that happen. I’m not sure if it’s a technical limitation (which wouldn’t surprise me) or simply a policy.

So, having thought about all options and realizing that our client was fine with the certainty of arriving 2 hours later, we decided to play it safe and put him on the later flight from Vegas. This kind of change can’t be made on the website, so I called Southwest and got an agent who instantly told me that was impossible. She said that she had to change the entire reservation and couldn’t just change the second segment. I’ve generally come to believe things like that with Southwest because their tech is so limited but I knew this wasn’t true. She basically just did the same thing I could have done by looking on the website. She said the only option with room was a later flight out of Nashville that would get our client in hours later. This made no sense considering the perfectly good later flight from Vegas.

And that’s when I used the time-tested mantra of “hang up, call back.” There was no point explaining to her that it was possible since I knew I wasn’t going to change her mind. But before I did, I asked how many seats were on that later Vegas to San Jose flight. Only 4. Yikes. Ok. *click*

The next agent I spoke with told me that the change could be made, but it would require deleting the boarding passes on the first flight from Nashville because he couldn’t be checked in for the flight. Then when he re-checked in, he’d be stuck at the back. That I believed, and of course, it put us in a tough situation. Is it better to be stuck in a middle seat in the back on the way to Vegas and be confirmed on the later connecting flight? Or is it best to take chances and hope that if the original connection is missed, there’s still an option later?

The agent told me that it might be worth asking at the airport if they could make the change without compromising boarding positions. It seemed like the best plan was to lay out our client’s options and let him decide.

I spoke with our client and he was already at the airport, so I told him to go to the gate agent and see if they had any special powers. A few minutes later, he told me that the gate agent had confirmed that they were holding the connection for him.

How many of you have heard that bunch of crap before? Though with Southwest, I tend to believe it more often than not, but I still wasn’t buying it… until I checked flight status again. A few minutes later, Southwest had posted a 20 minute delay to the connection, and that was clearly meant for connecting passengers.

At this point, I was glad the original agent didn’t know how to do anything because we might have made the change before the connection posted the delay. In the end, these kind of situations are all about making judgment calls. It’s a tough thing to do since there are so many variables. But in this case, it worked out well. He made his original connection.

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