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

Southwest, 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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18 comments on “To Change or Not to Change? (Tales From the Field)

  1. One thing I’ve learned in life is you can ask five people doing the same job the same question and get five different answers. And all could be right, but only one may be the best for the situation.

    With airline workers, the people working at the airport only know how to put people on the airplane in front of them. Ask them anything else and they usually are clueless. With phone people in any call center type job, the level of knowledge is determined by how long they have worked for the company, what mood they are in that day, and/or who trained them in the first place.

    1. This is absolutely true. What I find irksome is that the passengers seem to have to do all the leg work, research, hunting down flights and other options, making phone calls, checking websites, etc., when you would think that calling the airline directly would connect you with experienced reservationists or dealing at/with airport personnel would do the same.
      As far as I’m concerned our employers (the airlines) just want us to be “general” information givers and button pushers or showing passengers “how to use the kiosk teachers”. Those with at least 20 or more years with the airlines are making big bucks and yet doing a job that anyone with a 10th grade education can do. (No wonder they want to outsource us).
      Gone are the days when troubleshooting, knowledge of ticketing combined with common sense and decision making were part of our jobs. We are just told to “foist” passengers off on someone else….reservations, the ticket counter, the gate, back to reservations, their travel agent. Little wonder passengers are given a multitude (usually wrong) answers. I’ve seen it, I’ve heard it, I’ve lived it for many years. Ugh.

  2. Why didn’t you just buy a one way LAS-SJC on the later flight. Its fully refundable. If he makes the connection, refund the ticket. If he misses it, he has a secure seat on the next flight. If he misses it, and Southwest gets him on the next flight, the ticket is still refundable. No matter what, he gets a seat, and his money back.

    1. jeremy – We could have technically done that, though I imagine it’s against Southwest’s policy. But you’re right, it would have been a option.

  3. I see nothing has changed at Southwest – and I haven’t worked there in over 12 years. I don’t think the rez agents have access to the native system to get creative during irregular ops. At the airport they do have access. Also Southwest has a team which watches for delays, missed connections, etc. and work with dispatch to either hold flights or protect passengers on later flights. While Southwest is usually great with holding flights, I’ll agree that the communication factor can be poor.

  4. Why did you allow him to schedule a 40 minute connection anyway? Hour and a half should be the norm in case something happens.

      1. No I have just worked in the industry in a few different positions that felt specifically with the customer and have seen people blow a gasket when they give themselves 25 minutes between flights coming from a originating point where the fog is a prominent start of the morning. And others that bitch about ATC holds and a 50 minute connection. I know better than to only give myself 40 minutes between flights, I don’t like to gamble much.

      2. Agree with Jamie. I give myself long connections. Rather have 1.5-2 hours of planned time over stressing and dashing gate to gate. Especially if it’s spoke with limited flights, flights late in the day, or international flights departing once a day.

        Plus for most business travelers it’s not wasted time; can work, write, email, etc.

    1. Jamie – I’m guessing you don’t fly Southwest much? Southwest builds its own connections (you can’t build your own) and most of the time they are extremely short like that. We actually rarely have problems with it, but sometimes it doesn’t work out.

      1. Nope, not usually. I guess as long as they are willing to hold a flight because they actually create their itinerary then it should be fine.

  5. My experience with WN as a passenger is they are one of the best in the business at holding flights to protect connections, especially when there is insufficient space on a reasonable alternative flight (such as when the connection is the last flight of the night).

  6. This story reminds me of the old Midwest Airlines (rest in peace). since they had limited capacity for re routing, they routinely held connections for a short time in MKE.

  7. This JUST happened today to me on Delta. Flying from IAD to GSP, landed in ATL to get to GSP 30 minutes earlier than expected. Called Gold desk to get on the next flight at 2:15p vs the 4:30p that I was on. 1st Gold agent said, there are plenty of seats but I can’t get you on. I was calling from the train at ATL and told her that I did it 2 days ago on the outbound. She was adamant that this was not going to happen. I immediately called back and there she was again. I hung up and called again and got an agent that worked it and by the time I got from B17 to C52, I was on the flight, in 7D Economy Comfort – at no cost. Miracle of miracles!? No, just someone who really didn’t know what to do or didn’t want to do it.

  8. Well, Cranky, congratulations, as you’ve reached another milestone !?
    When I came to your home page, the blog entries showed “Page 1 of 747” !
    Time to stop writing, or to extend the space available on each page to keep the page count at that awesome number !?

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