Southwest Airlines Sucks

by JDH on March 20, 2010

I spent the week on vacation with my family in Las Vegas, and here’s my report: Southwest Airlines sucks.

Two months ago my wife contacted a travel agent at CAA and booked six tickets on a Southwest Airlines flight from Buffalo to Las Vegas. Unfortunately our travel agent didn’t tell us how Southwest Airlines works (or doesn’t). So, for those of you don’t know how it works, here’s the deal:

Southwest Airlines has no reserved seats. Even if you book your flight two months in advance, you don’t get a reserved seat. In fact, you don’t get a seat at all. So there we were, like fools, showing up at the airport two hours early. We check our bags at the front counter. We ask for a boarding pass. No, you don’t get a boarding pass here, they said, you get a security pass. We then cleared security, and went to gate to check in. But it was an hour and a half early, so there was no-one at the gate. So when went and had something to eat, and returned an hour before flight time. Then we find out how it works. We got a boarding pass with a boarding order number. Of course, by that time, we are now at the back of the plane.

We were traveling as a group of six (my wife and two kids and her parents). My mother-in-law had never flown before. My two boys are kids; they’ve flown before, but for a five hour flight it’s preferable that they actually get to sit with one of their parents. Unfortunately, if you can’t reserve seats, you don’t get to sit with whom you want. So, my son got to sit at the very back of the plane, by the window, with two total strangers, while I sat on the other side of the aisle with two other strangers, also at the back of the plane. My wife was able to convince someone to switch seats with her so she could sit with our younger son, a few rows up.

Apparently what you are supposed to do is go on-line one day before and book your boarding order. Then you get a boarding pass with a number. The boarding passes will be numbered A 1 to 60, then B 1 to 60, then C 1 to 30. If you get an A ticket, you get to board first. If you get a C ticket, you’re screwed. (If you think I’m making this up, I’m not; Southwest has it on their website).

Here’s a question: what if you are on vacation, and didn’t bother to bring a computer with you; how are you supposed to log in exactly 24 hours in advance of your flight to confirm your reservation? That’s just stupid. Other passengers I spoke to looked at me like I was nuts. Of course, they said, that’s how it works. You just have to go to your computer the day before and log in and book. That’s just how it works.

Just prior to our flight was a flight, at the next gate, going to Chicago. Just prior to leaving, the ticket lady comes on the loud speaker and says:

Hey, would anyone like to get bumped? We sold more seats than there are on the plane, so here’s the deal: We’ll give you a seat on a plane leaving tomorrow, and we’ll put you up in some crappy hotel tonight, and we’ll give you a $200 travel voucher that you can use on a future flight.

Then, a few minutes later, as our flight was about to leave, the same announcement comes on for our flight. So I’m starting to figure out how Southwest Airlines work. They sell more seats than there are on the plane. They hope that a few people miss their flight, so they end up selling 160 seats on a 150 seat plane. Normally 153 people actually show up, so the airline bumps three people, and pays for their $100 hotel stay, and gives them a $200 voucher that they will never use. Here’ the math:

Sell 10 extra seats at $600 each. Give three customers $100 for their hotel stay, for a cost of $300.

Total extra revenue: $6,000

Total extra cost: $300

Total extra profit: $5,700


The $200 voucher is good towards another flight on Southwest anytime in the next year. After being bumped, would you really want to fly with these guys again? Nope. So the $200 voucher ends up costing Southwest nothing.

Perhaps I’m old, but I remember 10 years ago flying from Toronto to Montreal. The flight is just over an hour, but as soon as the flight took off they served a meal, on real plates, with real knives and forks.

Today, on a four and half hour flight, you get a little bag of crackers (no peanuts; someone on the flight had a peanut allergy) and a plastic cup filled with ice and a few drops of coke.

I realize that times are tough. I realize that the airline industry has been crushed by high fuel costs, high security costs, and a weak economy. But I don’t understand why consumers accept lousy service. Southwest Airlines has decided that the airline is more important than the customer. They won’t sell you a seat. They will only sell you a chance at a seat. They are there to make money, and if it inconveniences the customer, so be it.

Here’s an idea: have a first class section for customers that want to pay more. They can get a guaranteed seat, and they can get a decent sized seat as well. Then have a regular section, for people who want to pay a bit less, but still want a reserved seat. Then have a “coach” section at the back, for passengers that want to pay less, and are prepared to take their chances on getting a seat. The airline still maximizes revenue, while still giving the customers what they want.

Give the customers what they want. There’s an idea.

So for the return trip, we were smart. We paid the extra $10 fee per person to allow you to book a boarding pass more than 24 hours in advance. Then, the day before we were to leave, my wife logged in to the Southwest Airlines website to see whether our boarding passes were there. There was a button that said “click here to print”. Now here’s the problem: we are anal enough to bring a laptop computer with us on vacation, but not anal enough to bring a printer with us. So we have no way to print the boarding passes. In fact, we were afraid to even hit the “click to print” button, for fear of losing our place in line. So, my wife phoned Southwest.

“Yes, your request has been processed” she was told. “What does that mean?” she asked. “It means your request has been processed” she was told. “Okay”, asked my wife, speaking slowly, and not using any big words, because she was, after all, talking to a Southwest Airlines employee, who by definition can’t be very smart. “What’s my boarding pass number? Am I an A, a B, or a C?” “We can’t tell you that. You should print it out to find out.” “I’m on vacation! How can I print it out?”

And so it went, for about ten minutes. My boys and I thought it was quite humorous. My wife was not amused. She eventually printed the boarding passes as an electronic file, took a picture of them, and then sent it to her Blackberry. When we arrived at the Las Vegas airport the skycap was able to print our boarding passes for us, and we were able to board a the end of the “A” group, so we were able to all sit together, which made for a much nicer return trip.

As we sat in our seats watching the rest of the plan board, a mother, traveling with three young children, got on the plane. She obviously did not know all of the Southwest tricks. She had not printed her boarding pass early. As we heard her walk to the very back of the plane, we heard her eight year old daughter say something to the effect of “I can’t sit with you?” The girl was obviously scared and upset. Her mother said “don’t worry, I’ll be just across the aisle, and one row behind you.” Another happy customer, something that is no doubt repeated on every flight.

Southwest Airlines isn’t an airline. It’s a bus that flys. There’s nothing wrong with a bus. If you want to pay less, and get less, then fly Southwest.

Personally, I will never fly Southwest again. In the future I will pay a premium to actually get a seat.

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