Last month my family found ourselves smack in the middle of the Southwest Airlines techno glitch. The one that resulted in 2,300 Southwest Flight Cancellations from July 20th. to the 25th. It was a disaster!
I know flights get cancelled or delayed all the time. It’s happened to us on more than one occasion and it’s always a pain, specially when you’re traveling with kids. But the difference between say flight cancellations by a “regular” airlines like Delta, United, Hawaiian Airlines or even Philippine Airlines (I’ve experienced cancellations on these airlines) and a “discount” airlines like Southwest is major!
Yes flight cancellations and delays are beyond annoying and usually result in you spending extra money, but flight cancellations by a discount airlines is a whole different level. At least in our experience.
Let me tell you what happened. First off I have never flown Southwest Airlines. Last March when booking flights for my family I let my daughters persuade me into booking with Southwest. They had flown with them before or had friends and family that have and all seemed satisfied with the airlines.
Here are the pros that got me to book with Southwest.
First it was the low cost. We had to book tickets for 7 people from Denver to Chicago for a 50th. Wedding Anniversary in Green Bay (we planned to drive to Green Bay) then from Chicago to Atlanta to drop off our 2 grandsons who live in Atlanta. So cost was definitely an issue and Southwest had the best prices.
Second was free baggage. I believe Southwest is the only airlines that don’t charge a fee for the first 2 bags per person on domestic flights. And with 7 people traveling that meant a big savings, we had 6 pieces of checked luggage as well as a child’s car seat for my grandson Jett. (Car seats, strollers, and wheel chairs are checked for free on all airlines.)
Those were really the 2 main reasons I agreed to go with Southwest. I wasn’t sure about its seating and boarding policies, but I figured we could make it work.
Southwest has no assigned seating and boarding is done by group and position. This means you’re assigned a group A, B, C and a position 1-60 within your group. Group A is for loyal flyers and those who paid $30-40 to upgrade to Business Select which guarantees you group A and positions 1-15. For the rest of us your group and position I’m told is determined by the time you check-in, so the earlier you check-in, you can do this 24 hours before your flight online, the better your group and position. They do offer family boarding just after group A for those traveling with children up to 6 years old, I guess this is to help families find seats together.
I know this is confusing for those of us that have never traveled this way, but it’s really not too awful. That is once you’ve figured out how it all works.
So back in March we bought 7 tickets on Southwest for their 7 am flight from Denver to Chicago’s Midway Airport on July 22. We had to be in Green Bay the next day. My daughter lives in Colorado Springs which is an hour and a half away from Denver. I had checked the flight status the night before and it was on time. So we awoke at 3 am that day to get everyone ready to drive to the airport. The luggage was loaded in the van the night before, all we had to do was get the kids up and ready and we could head out by 4 am. Plenty enough time to get to the airport 2 hours before the flight.
Shortly after waking up my daughter got a text from Southwest Airlines informing us that our flight had been cancelled. We were instructed to re-book online or by calling their toll free number. We tried both. There were no available flights online and I was put on hold for 3 hours! While I was on hold my husband decided we should just drive to the airport and see what could be done. My daughter was confident that Southwest would find a way to get us to Chicago that day. Oh how wrong she was!
We arrived at the airport (I was still on hold, in fact I finally hung up when I got in the long line for the help desk) there was only 1 person at the help desk! The line was very long, everyone in the same predicament we were in. When I finally reached the front of the line I was not in the mood to put up with the agent’s attitude.
After explaining my problem she checked the flights and told me I had 3 choices: go on stand-by (all 7 of us), get a refund, or re-book for Sunday. I told her those choices weren’t going to cut it. I bought seats months ago and it wasn’t my fault they had to cancel my flight.
To this her response was:
“You and everyone else. Let me tell you how this works. Everyone has a reservation and we are not going to take people off the flights that aren’t cancelled to accommodate you.”
I get that, but I still needed to get to Chicago! So we asked her to book us on a different airlines (that’s what other airlines have done in the same situation). To this she told us that Southwest does not co-share with any other airlines. So if you’re holding a Southwest ticket you’re stuck! We told the lady we’d think of our options and get back to her. We checked other airlines and couldn’t find seats for that day, well there was a couple on United for $1140 each.
After some discussion we decided to get back in line and see how close she could get us to Wisconsin that day. Luckily we didn’t have to deal with the same agent. A nice man took us out of the line and led us to his station. He searched for different routes and came up with a somewhat reasonable itinerary. Fly to Columbus, Ohio at 7:30 pm then catch the flight to Chicago at 6:30 am the next morning. This would get us to Chicago by 6:45 am (time change) and with the 3 1/2 hour drive to Green Bay by noon. We’d miss the church ceremony but would make the dinner that evening. It was our only chance so we grabbed it.
So what did this luck bring us? Well we were able to check our luggage with the service located at the airport. (Southwest won’t accept checked bags until 4 hours before the flight. The service takes care of this for you.) This meant dragging our bags thru the airport and down one floor to the service office. The agents there were very pleasant and hated to inform us that due to the uncertainty of Southwest flights we would have to claim our bags in Ohio and re-check them 4 hours before the next flight. What a pain!
Then we drove back to my daughter’s house, what else could we do? We didn’t want to hang out at the airport for 12 hours. Meanwhile I had to change my car reservations in Chicago as well as hotel reservations in Green Bay.
We returned to the airport that afternoon and tried to check-in the car seat, not happening! We couldn’t use the self-serve kiosk to get a luggage tag because it was reading out boarding passes as flight cancelled. Don’t know why because they were new boarding passes issued for the Ohio flight that morning. Our only choice was to stand in the long customer service line. We opted to just gate check the car seat so we dragged it along with the kids’ hand luggage thru security and to the gate.
That flight was only delayed 45 minutes. We were able to board with the family boarding crowd and managed to get seats close to each other. It was a short flight and I have to admit the flight crew were fantastic. We arrived in Columbus around 1 am and claimed our luggage. We debated on getting hotel rooms to rest for a few hours, Jett was asleep and the other 2 boys were beat, but a hotel room wasn’t in the cards. By the time we found one and managed to get to it we’d have to return to the airport. So we lugged our belongings to the ticketing area and staked out a couch next to the ticket counter.
The boys were hungry but nothing was open. We did find some vending machines that took only coins so we scrounged up all our loose change and were able to get a few drinks and some snacks. Then we got out blankets and let the kids, and the men (my husband and son-in-law) nap on the couch. Trust me no one but Jett slept comfortably. My husband was grumbling that he’d never slept at an airport before and was not happy doing so this time. By the way we weren’t the only ones camping out by the ticket counter. My daughter and I spent the time comparing “war stories” with fellow passengers.
The line to the ticket counter started forming at 3 am. I was fifth in line. The counter opened at 3:45. At least here they opened several positions and announced that those with flights not cancelled go to the left 3 windows and those with cancelled flights to the right. Yes, they were still cancelling flights that day, but ours wasn’t cancelled, just delayed. We were able to check our bags and go thru security fairly quickly. By the gate the only place open was Starbucks so we bought coffee, milk, and donuts which we ate waiting for our flight to board.
That flight was about an hour and we managed to get to Chicago that morning and to Green Bay just after noon. And I thought the nightmare was over, for sure by the time we had to fly to Atlanta that Monday Southwest would be back to normal. Oh, how wrong I was!
Unfortunately on the drive back to Chicago we were rear ended by a distracted driver, I believe she was texting while going 70 mph. This delayed us, we had to get a police report to take to the rental company. The delay meant we were stuck in Chicago’s rush hour traffic on the only road to Midway Airport.
We arrived at the airport about an hour before our 7:30 pm flight and thought we’d be able to catch it. I told an agent my situation and was directed to a self serve kiosk to print a boarding pass and luggage tags. I was told I couldn’t be helped without them. We got those fairly quickly then had to wait in line for the agent to take our bags. We got to the counter just under 30 minutes before the flight’s departure and were told we couldn’t get on the flight because of our luggage. The next flight we could get on to Atlanta was on Thursday, 3 days later! By then we’d had it with Southwest. We decided to rent another van and drive the 12 hours to Atlanta. We arrived in Atlanta the next day after spending a night in a hotel in Indiana.
So what made this airlines so different? Well for starters when other airlines cancel a flight they try their best to get you a seat on the next flight, and if not they book you on another airlines. I’ve gotten meal and hotel vouchers from United, Delta, Hawaiian, and Philippine Airlines when they’ve cancelled flights. Not to mention a first class seat on the flight they book me on.
Delta and United have given me drink vouchers when a flight is delayed by a couple of hours. Most importantly agents for other airlines have treated me better. They’ve profusely apologized for delays and cancellations and try their best to fix the problems. I’ve even had agents greet me at the jet way when a flight I’m connecting to is cancelled. They escort me to the help desk and get me on the next available flight or a hotel room if the delay is long. Emirate Airline agents have whisked us to the gate when the TSA lines are long and we’re in danger of missing the flight, but then there’s no beating Emirate Airlines for customer service!
I admit that cancelled or delayed flights are annoying no matter what airlines you’re on, specially when you’re traveling with kids. But great customer service makes it a bit easier and encourages you to be more understanding.
What did I get from Southwest? Well they did give each of us $200 worth of Southwest vouchers for future flights and they refunded the cost of our Chicago to Atlanta tickets. So I now possess $14oo worth of vouchers I can use on Southwest, as if! And flight vouchers issued to each of us that can only be used by the person it was issued to, that was the refund portion.
I did not get an apology even though according to an article I read Southwest’s representative promised to apologize to each and every passenger affected by this mess. I did not get good customer service, I couldn’t even reach them on their toll free phone number!
Southwest did manage to cost me money. Almost $1000 for the van we rented to drive to Atlanta. $200 for the hotel rooms in Indiana. $50 for snacks at the overpriced store in Midway Airport for snacks for the kids while we waited for my husband to pick-up the one and only available van from O’hare Airport. $50 for Starbucks in Columbus. I know missing the flight to Atlanta was really our fault. We were delayed by the accident and traffic, but it was beyond my control. Had they been more sympathetic and helpful we probably could have made that flight.
Will I travel with them again? Absolutely not! My daughters are planning to use the vouchers to visit each other next month, hopefully they’ll have better luck. And Jaime plans on giving unused vouchers to her in-laws, they like Southwest.
From now on I will stick to the other airlines. The cheaper Southwest tickets sound good but when things happen you end up paying more!