Great Communication on Southwest, Not on JetBlue (Trip Report)

JetBlue, Southwest, Trip Reports

We had a quick trip this weekend up to San Francisco, and man, was this a lesson in the importance of communication. We flew JetBlue up from Long Beach and had a miserable experience. On the other hand, our flight home to Los Angeles on Southwest was excellent. Both flights were delayed, so what made the difference? Quality communication.

The flight north on JetBlue was booked on May 8 for $59.60 one way per person. I had a $15 voucher from my previous flight where LiveTV didn’t work, so it only cost $44.60 per person in cash. Nice. As usual, we left home an hour before the flight, sailed through security and then went to the holdroom/trailer to wait for our flight.

June 12, 2009
JetBlue #1436 Lv Long Beach (LGB) 655p Arr San Francisco (SFO) 819p
LGB: Gate 2A, Runway 30, Dept 50m Late
SFO: Gate A10, Runway 28R, Arr 1h13m Late
Aircraft: N579JB, Airbus A320-232, Named Can’t Stop Lovin’ Blue, Two Thirds Full
Seat: 12F
Flight Time: 1h12m

Just as we arrived, I received an email from FLTAdvisor saying that my flight was delayed 25 minutes. Ugh. The holdroom was absolutely jammed as three flights were preparing to leave, so I squeezed my way through the crowd to ask the gate agent what was happening. He looked surprised as well, pulled up the flight information, and flatly said that it would be 25 minutes late because the plane was late. How did they not know this further in advance?

The plane arrived and the gate agent made another announcement that we would board in 15 minutes. Then 25 minutes later, he said we would begin preboarding in 5 minutes. Another 20 minutes later, he Long Boarding Line at LGBfinally started preboarding. The misinformation was clearly annoying many in the boarding area as we all hovered around, waiting with less and less patience as each minute went by.

When they finished preboarding, the gate agent called all rows, and it was a mad dash to board from all corners of the trailer, as you can see at left. What a mess. It was made even worse by the gate agent’s lackadaiscal manner that showed absolutely no motivation to get this plane out quickly.

Once we got onboard, people sat down relatively quickly, but then we didn’t move for awhile as ground crew shuffled in and out of the cockpit. To make things worse, the TVs were all stuck on a promo screen so we couldn’t pass the time. The captain made a brief announcement that they were doing paperwork and we’d leave soon. Several minutes later, he came back on and told us that on a previous flight, it had been written up that a TV was broken but now it wasn’t. They needed to get the paperwork straightened out.

I’m sure he was trying to comfort everyone by making it clear that it wasn’t a safety issue, but it just made things worse when we realized that we were waiting for some paperwork on a single TV that wasn’t even broken. Grr.

We finally pushed back and sat through a handful of JetBlue promotions on TV right after the safety briefing. Once those were done, they turned on the TVs, but they didn’t work well on the ground. That wouldn’t have mattered except that as soon as we got to the end of the runway, the captain announced we had been given a 10 minute air traffic control delay by SFO. Could this get any more annoying?

Yes, it could. We did finally take off and it was a beautiful flight as the setting sun filled the partly Taking Off From LGB Into the Sunsetcloudy sky with beams of red and orange (at right). We started our descent, and we were told that we were on final approach. Not so much. We took a left turn and headed out to sea before turning around and coming back to get in line to land.

Finally, well over an hour after schedule, we landed and headed off to a very late dinner with extremely patient friends. The delays were annoying as they always are, but the misleading information and lack of communication at times made it ten times worse.

After a really nice weekend, including a stay at the excellent Hotel Vitale (my first Joie de Vivre hotel – I’ll be back), we hopped on the BART and went back to SFO for our flight home.

We opted to fly Southwest home because we had credits that were going to expire, and we were able to get rides from friends. It was even better when we found seats for $48.60 a person.

We arrived early and meandered from the BART station in the international terminal over to Southwest’s SFO Aviation MuseumTerminal 1 location. On the way, my wife stopped at the SFMOMA museum shop, and I insisted on stopping at the aviation museum. It’s a fantastic space with a library on the second floor (at left). Stop in if you get a chance – it’s in the southeast corner of the international terminal, outside security, on the departures level.

Security lines were short but slow, but we had plenty of time. This was my first time flying Southwest out of SFO since they returned to the airport, and I noticed we were flying out of an old Air Canada gate instead of at the end of the concourse where Southwest used to be.

June 14, 2009
Southwest #2282 Lv San Francisco (SFO) 1145a Arr Los Angeles (LAX) 110p
SFO: Gate 23, Runway 1L, Dept 12m Late
LAX: Gate 14, Runway 24R, Arr 21m Late
Aircraft: N783SW, Boeing 737-7H4, Canyon Blue Colors, 100% Full
Seat: 9F
Flight Time: 56m

We were told at the gate that our plane would be arriving late and we’d have to work to turn the plane quickly. Sure enough, it arrived when they said, and by that time, they had lined the A group (we were A26/27) up so we were ready to board asap. They kept pushing everyone to hustle throughout the boarding process, and kept reminding us how close we were to departure time.

Unfortunately, people weren’t as quick as they could have been, and departure time came and went. Despite the proactive measures, we still left a few minutes late. Once the door was closed, we pushed back quickly and started taxiing out to the runway. Then we sat there. Oh no, not again.

The captain came on and alerted us that we were going to have to wait 8 to 12 minutes to take off. Ok, that’s fair. Twelve minutes later, he came on the horn and said that we had been “penalized” further by air traffic control and we would leave at 1230p (in 10 minutes) because of traffic flow control in the LA area. (You don’t see that very often.)

Sure enough, at 1230p, our wheels were lifting off the ground and we were passing through a low, broken layer of clouds. The rest of the flight was uneventful, and I was very happy to see a cloud-free day in LA for the first time in weeks. June Gloom has been living up to its name lately.

As we landed, the flight attendants decided to kick in some good old-fashioned Southwest humor. One flight attendant said, “If you’re connecting on another Southwest flight, check the monitors in the terminal. If you’re connecting on another airline, we simply don’t care.” Love it.

Though the JetBlue delay was longer than the Southwest one, it still wouldn’t have bothered me nearly as much had the communication been accurate and more frequent. Every airline has its good and bad days, and I’m willing to assume that this was just a bad day for the JetBlue crew.

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21 comments on “Great Communication on Southwest, Not on JetBlue (Trip Report)

  1. Sadly in the service business people tend to measure you by your bad days..

    We’ve had a bunch of bad days at my work place as of late, although we try to be really on top of our stuff..

  2. June 10, 2009
    American Airlines, Phoenix to Dallas #2020, MD-80.
    Scheduled Departure 4:25PM. Actual Departure: 5:30PM
    Ground hold due to DFW weather: 1 hour 45 minutes.
    Take-off 7:15PM, uneventful flight.
    Enter holding pattern over Brownwood, Texas 11:30PM.
    Divert to Austin 12:30AM. Land Austin 01:00AM.

    Several AA diversions, one DL 737 and one CO 737 also waiting for gates. Could not see out the right side of the plane to find out how bad Southwest was doing.

    Finally deplane about 2:30am after waiting for flights with plenty of crew-time left to refuel and try to make DFW. Our crew timed out and we were off-loaded but advised that all bags would remain on board. We were to proceed to baggage claim to overnight accommodation information.

    All hotels sold out, cots, chairs and blankets were available at the far end of baggage claim.

    1st Re-Departure Time: 10:50AM
    2nd Re-Departure Time: 11:55AM
    3rd Re-Departure Time: 1:09PM.

    Cometh the dawn and the re-balancing of the system, fleet and crews:
    06:00 Departed
    07:10 Cancelled
    08:00 Cancelled
    09:05: Cancelled
    09:45 Cancelled
    10:30 Cancelled

    Two diversions cancelled. Bags for all flights including diversions dumped at Baggage Claim, all affected passengers to start from scratch.

    11:45 Operated
    12:15 Operated
    Diverted #2020 Boarded with only half its original passenger compliment.
    Departed approximately 1:20PM, headed northwest to San Angelo to clear a lingering line of storms and wait for a shot at DFW.

    Landed at DFW approximately 1:35PM, about 20 hours after leaving Phoenix, a distance that can be driven in 16.

    Throughout American in my assessment was on top of their game communication wise. Our pilots stayed with the flight both days and kept a running update on developments and reasons behind any or zero information provided to them on both days. Flight crew remained poised and professional while gate agents at all three cities ran the drill like they had millions of times before, calmly and professionally, sometimes even with a smile.

    Some self-absorbed types did try to put up a desultory fuss but only had five other flights of diverted passengers to comiserate with, one of which came in from Seattle, refueled, tried for Dallas a second time and ended up right back in Austin for the night with the rest of us.

    I WOULD have been upset in Austin if I’d been made to wait until departure time only to have my flight cancelled but two flights left before mine which did more to dissuade my concerns than any update the staff could have offered. Austin is only three hours by car from Dallas but I was exhausted from staying up all night and wasn’t sure my company would have picked up the $155 one-way rate Hertz was trying to fleece me for. I gambled on American eventually getting up and running again and won.

    Deplaning in Dallas I thought of the Air France disaster and shook the pilot’s hand. “You got me home safe. I’ll be back.”

    Sorry I didn’t get the runway numbers.

  3. Optimist — I wonder why in situations like this, airlines don’t just charter a few buses to get passengers to the original destination airport. It’s probably not that hard to find 10-20 buses that would leave AUS at 6 AM and get the passengers to DFW by 9 or 10. AA would still need to reposition the planes and crews, but that’s probably easier (and possibly cheaper) without the passengers. Is it the cost of buses? Or is it that at any point throughout the delay it looks like flying has a chance of being faster?

  4. Like it’s been said, people only remember and tell family and friends about the bad flights and never talk about the good ones. Humans seems to like hearing the ‘horror’ events more then the good evenes. Wonder why that is?

  5. Ron –

    I’m not sure if the contingency operating model for that scenario has changed over the years. Many years earlier on another American service between DFW and JFK where I was to connect to Brazil bad weather in New York AND Dallas held us up for three hours prior to takeoff.

    When we finally got to the New York area things weren’t any better and we diverted and cancelled at Philadelphia. American did charter buses and we trundled across the Verazzano about four hours later, bags included. Sadly I missed my flight to Brazil but again I was alive and in one piece.

    I’m also not sure how much savings the airline would get outside of less fuel to carry the weight. Charters assess based on a round-trip basis so AA would have likely paid for a number of buses heading back to Austin with no one on board. That might have killed any fuel savings on a plane that needed to be repositioned anyway.

    That was 1992 so if anyone else has bussing stories more recent that will help with Ron’s query please share.

  6. DavidSFEastBay –

    Ever heard the news catchphrase: “If it bleeds, it leads.” In selling papers and websites in the news industy it’s all about misery definitely loving company to make our own lives seem that much better than we think it to be.

    Please note also that at the end of my story I praised American and it’s people for a job well done under extremely stressful circumstances. I don’t begrudge them the weather, the pilots stayed on top of both the weather and the news as they received it and the gate agents never gave up the ghost while trying to move people thru their system. They did their jobs, professionally and admirably from my perspective.

    Did anybody else get caught in Wednesday’s weather at Dallas and have a different story to share?

  7. Re bussing:

    AA and UA both fairly routinely bus us down from Madison, WI to O’Hare when there’s bad weather. (It’s a 2.5–3 hour drive.) The MSN-ORD flights are all RJs, though, so one bus can handle a full planeload. I’ve had UA and AA share a chartered bus to get the passengers on both airlines down to Chicago.

    I also sometimes hop on the regularly scheduled commercial bus on that route when the flight is significantly delayed, with AA’s blessing.

  8. Great picture of the ceiling at the SFO Aviation Museum. But what about some pics of the carpet next time?

  9. We used to get bussed from Ithica to BGM all the time. USAir would actually transfer the checked luggage right to the hold of the bus. It was only an hour or so, but the last flight of the night had a nasty habit of being fogged out. That is one of those problems that happens with building an airport ontop of a big hill, and low cloud cover.

    I expect though that new autoland systems have made this a mood event for BGM.

    But the calculation probably comes down to how much they have to shell out for meals etc.

  10. Communication: Are we that far off where there will be no verbal communication with anyone, anyone from your airline about anything, anything, between the time you leave for the airport until the moment you plop down on the plane seat? Same when you leave the plane at destination.

    Verbal communication, useful verbal communication for the average passenger, is going the way of the buggy whip. Should improve the airlines’ bottom line given the lack of need for much of their airport labor forces.

    Very sad, a great loss for what being human is all about. But this, I believe, is the way we’re headed with this industry.

  11. In 2008 took my first flight on JetBlue from JFK to Las Vegas. Service was fantastic. America west couldn’t hold a candle toJetBlue.

    As a foot note US Air no longer flies between Las Vegas & JFK.

  12. That supposed “humor” is why we call Southwest, Southworst! How DICK like of them to say. I fly nothing but Continental and if our flight is late and there are passengers trying to make connections, they do what they can to notify the other carriers and/or find them the next available flight and put them up in a room or at the least, buy them dinner. I wish you would dive into that comment more and explain if there were any other passengers on other carriers and did SW do anything about it.


  13. Insider Knowledge – Maybe it didn’t come off well when I wrote it, but everyone on the plane laughed. It was clearly a joke, and then she went on to say the rest of her spiel (most of which nobody listens to, I’m sure). Southwest generally doesn’t put you on other carriers as a rule, though I’m sure they make exceptions when necessary.

  14. CF –

    I understood the joke as intended but am not sure if Southwest really has an understanding on their interline exposure.

    THEY see their 80% point-to-point customer base only from the data of their ticket history. What they may not capture is how many of those passengers “manual interline” to other carriers thru two separate tickets.

    They ARE aware of it as it was a story line in “Airline” a while back. A Chinese couple was late from Phoenix to Los Angeles and missed their flight on China Airlines to Taipei. If I remember that episode correctly Southwest did nothing for them and, according to the contract of carriage for the ticket they bought (only to Los Angeles), they didn’t have to. They got the couple to LA, end of story.

    Even “Ombudsman” from Conde Nast would advise anyone interlining manually between Southwest and another carrier would say “buyer beware.” Southwest doesn’t have to do a thing for them though it would be nice if they did.

    As far as actually accommodating them on other airlines, unless Southwest paid rack rate to the other airline, the letter of the law again is the bi-lateral ticketing agreement, if any, which includes acceptance of “FIMs” or Flight Interruption Manifests. Airlines accept FIMs from each other at 75% of retail to cover operational disruptions based around Rule 240.

    Without a bi-lateral agreement, the FIM isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. The other airlines won’t accept it when it hits Accounting and the Station Manager where it was written will have some serious explaining to do.

    That is from my operational background at the airports. I’ve never seen Southwest send any of their cancelled or delayed customers to my airline. If they have, I’d be interested in those stories.

  15. Optimist – When I worked at America West, we used to send people to Southwest when necessary, and we always had to send them over with a check to pay for the ticket at full price. Not cheap, that’s for sure. While Southwest hasn’t flown me personally on another airline in that sense, I did have them pay for it once. I was 17 and flying from Baltimore to Phoenix via St Louis. The Baltimore to St Louis flight was late and they were going to put me up in a hotel. I wanted to get home, so they told me there was a flight on TWA that I could make, and if I paid for it with my credit card, I could probably get reimbursed. Sure enough, it happened.

    That doesn’t mean it was as easy as it could have been, but Southwest has always stayed away from the complexity of those types of settlement agreements. As they become more like a legacy carrier, I wonder if we’ll see them change.

  16. Cranky –

    Agreed. When they flew secondary airports, and especially ones with slim to no international exposure, FIM agreements weren’t much of an issue. As they continue to expand in to larger markets it is a good question to challenge them with:

    As you grow in to larger market airports, are you, Southwest Airlines, reviewing your passenger protection programs with respect to FIM acceptance in support of controllable delays at your carrier?

  17. I have been flying Jetblue out of Syracuse and around the country since 2004 (mainly JFK, but also Austin, Ontario, Las Vegas, and will be LAX tomorrow). Out of all of those, the only flight I ever had a problem with was one leaving Austin.

    The worst, and an example of REALLY bad communication was my flight leaving Austin that was delayed 10 minutes at a time due to weather, which added up to almost an hour. We left and then were delayed another 10 minutes at a time, circling Norfolk, Virginia waiting to approach JFK due to traffic and weather. This amounted to another hour. While between Austin and Norfolk, I asked the flight attendant if there was any way to please contact JFK and see if the last Syracuse flight would be able to wait, since it was the last flight of the evening and it’s only a 45 minute flight. There were about a dozen other people connecting from AUS-JFK-SYR.

    Well, that flight attendant did not contact anyone. As we approached JFK I asked her again and she said she thinks it may have left.

    A doze or so of us were stuck in the JFK terminal. No cots, pillows, blankets (air conditioning was frigid at that time of year), no offer to send us to a hotel or anything, and I was just late enough where I couldn’t get to Port Authority to get to the last Greyhound bus to Syracuse (they were not willing to help me out with the ticket or a taxi, and I did not have enough on me). I had to spend the night in the terminal while people vacuumed ALL night…all of the food places were closed.
    Hungry, tired, freezing I was stuck there during their construction of their new terminal at JFK and it was awful. Next flight was about 9:50am.

    Despite being angry, I do have to admit that out of all the years and miles clocked with Jetblue, that’s the only real negative experience (only slightly worse than my awful experience with Delta). Typically I’d have good luck with Jetblue and prefer their airline whenever possible.

    However, I do think it is a warning to them to be careful, because when they do make mistakes it tends to be a pretty big one.

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