Blowing a Hole in the Southwest Airlines Ethos of Jet Travel

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Southwest Airlines: a no fly zone

Let me count the ways in which I hate Southwest Airlines, especially in light of the fact that they don’t maintain their old, beat to hell, over-used jets very well, apparently outsourcing that to a company in Brazil. The passengers and crew on board the flight from Phoenix to Sacramento that blew a hole in the roof were very lucky to have survived the ordeal as well as they did.

Credit the pilot –a junior Sully Sullenberger– with successfully landing the old Boeing 737 at an Air Force base in Yuma, Arizona.  But knowing Southwest, aside from getting the passengers on another plane to their destination, probably did nothing else for them, except possibly hand out some bags of peanuts and pretzels– or maybe mini Ritz crackers–if they were really lucky.

Because Southwest is and has always been extremely lax in customer service and any amenities whatsoever.  People who have been flying for a long time say that in the olden days, while all of the other airlines offered hot meals even on short flights, Southwest had no food on any of its flights–but yet free liquor– resulting in an atmosphere on board like a honky-tonk bar with a lot of drunks livening up the proceedings.  They wouldn’t even brew pots of coffee, instead handing out packets of Sanka—if anyone remembers that stuff–and a cup of hot water to passengers.

The planes still have that dingy, dated, down on their luck feel to them.  But what’s most objectionable is the fact that Southwest has never and apparently never will offer seat assignments.  What is the charm of standing up at the airport gate waiting to get on a short hop Southwest flight to get a “good” seat?  It’s an annoying pain in the ass, especially for business travelers.

We have never understood this concept.  Is it that expensive to add software to their reservations system that would give customers the seat assignment when they buy a ticket? There’s absolutely no point to the cattle call nature of their boarding process, even “improved” now with A, B and C boarding lines.

Here’s what happened on board the last Southwest flight I took, which was from Albuquerque to Los Angeles, a route Southwest has a near monopoly on with its many nonstops daily.  (Thankfully, other airlines–United and American–have entered the market, but have very limited flights.) Somehow I managed to get a front row aisle seat– the better to get out of there as quickly as possible upon landing.  Ordering a Coca-Cola, and looking forward to reading a new hardcover book I had bought for the journey, I couldn’t find a tray table, which normally would be in the armrest. Hmmm. So I called the flight attendant over and asked her where the tray table was for my seat.  She told me there was none, and then added in a very condescending tone.  “Ma’am, this is a no-frills airline.”  I shot right back: “Ma’am, $378 between LA and Albuquerque is not a no-frills fare.”

Because that’s another thing I hate about Southwest.  The fares are NOT cheap.  Sure, they may offer a couple teasers, but you have to jump through hoops to get any sort of what could be considered “cheap” fares to anywhere they fly in the West and Southwest. And what you might save in money, you’ll waste in time, waiting for a seat at the gate.

But back to my story.  I was not about to take this lying down, or as it were, sitting up, without a tray table.  So I wrote a letter to the president of Southwest Airlines and enclosed my flight receipt which showed the amount of fare that I paid, which was more than a coast-to-coast ticket on a legacy carrier.  I got back a page-and-a-half long letter making excuses about why there was no tray table at the seat– and the capper was a $25 gift certificate was enclosed.  Gee, thanks Southwest Airlines, that really will go a long way to win my loyalty to your airline.  Are you kidding?

As a matter of fact, I plan on never flying it again, because I’ve always hated nearly every single element of the experience.  And now with the safety hazards of overusing old jets exposed, I will do anything possible to stay away from Southwest, including paying more to fly another carrier–where presumably I will have a seat assignment, a tray table and a professional environment on board.

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Author: Hillary Atkin

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