From Southwest to Southworst: Two fliers’ tale of woe at DCA

Caitlyn looks happy upon her arrival in Indy, but deep down, she's a ball of fury.

Caitlyn looks happy upon her arrival in Indy, but deep down, she’s a ball of fury.

Most our experiences flying Southwest have been smooth and uneventful—just what a flier would want from his or her airline. Our last trip with them was not one of those times. In fact, it was the worst flying experience of both my and my wife’s lives.

We know busy airports sometimes have delays, especially when you’re on the east coast, but with the plane—empty and at our gate on time—we figured we were in good shape, even if it was overcast outside. Unfortunately, the plane wasn’t only empty of passengers—it also was missing a flight crew. After a nearly 40-minute wait watching the clouds outside grow darker and more ominous, the crew arrived and boarding began.

Things didn’t get too “exciting” until we got on the plane. As we started slowly moving along the tarmac, the rains thundered down, rocking our plane back-and-forth like it was trying to put a baby to sleep. After several minutes of this, the rain appeared to cease, at which point the captain turned on the mic and told us if we weren’t cleared for takeoff soon, one of the crew members would be “up on hours” and we’d need to swap them out for another crew member. Why this employee was on a flight just getting ready to take off is beyond me but, hey, I’m not an operations guy.

Oh, Southwest has a personality all right ...

Oh, Southwest has a personality all right …

The rain returned, with a fury, turning the tarmac into a temporary swimming pool as we all just waited patiently, myself flipping through my Mental Floss to learn random facts that will leave me well prepared for a future barroom Trivia Night. After the rain cut out again, the captain came on and said we were taking off. Huzzah! … and then moments later added, “Uh, one of our crew members is up on hours, so we’re going to have to go back to the gate.”

A collective groan echoed about the cabin.

Back at the gate, I knew what was coming—our flight was going to be canceled. Determined to make sure I was one of the first ones off the plane, I snagged an empty seat near the front so that I could make a mad dash once the verdict was official. When the news came down that not just our flight, but all flights at DCA had been grounded, I booked it to the Southwest ticket counter and was the second person in line.

The kind of machine that re-books your flight ... twice, due to staffing shortages.

The kind of machine that re-books your flight … twice, due to staffing shortages.

I’ll save you the bother of dealing with the ticket counter, which had no idea what was happening (even after those going back to Indy all raised their hands, the clerk thought she was booking Indy-bound passengers when, in fact, she had booked nobody for the Circle City). After waiting 90 minutes for our luggage to return and, along with other Indy-bound folks, securing a 7:55 a.m. flight the following morning, we went back to our hotel in DC that we had stayed the past four nights (I highly recommend The Donovan, which was nice enough to extend a special rate to us weary travelers).

Flash forward to 5 a.m. the next morning. Caitlyn is in the shower and I’m checking my email on my phone, when I notice an alert from Southwest, telling me my flight has been canceled. Again. No reason or explanation given and, as far as I can tell, the weather’s quite nice outside. A 90-minute wait, then phone call with Southwest ticketing and we had re-booked our re-booked flight for 4:55 p.m. that evening.

Thankfully, we have understanding neighbors and a pet-sitter who collaborated to make sure our pets, you know, didn’t die or anything because of this mess. Add up the transportation, lodging, food, parking and pet-sitting costs and our “budget” trip to DC quickly escalated out of control. Sure, we could have stayed in the airport overnight, but what then when Southwest canceled our flight for a second time? We would have been there a total of 26 hours. And no one wants to sit next to a stinky Kris on a flight.

Caitlyn, infuriated with the entire process and someone who has been flying since she was 6 months old, vented her frustration at the ticket guy when re-booking for the second time. He politely took it in and then told her to call customer service, who politely told her to call back once her flight had landed.

She did and … Southwest compensated us with one $100 voucher. Total. While it’s nice that Southwest did something, I would expect a little more, considering this is a company that’s plastered ads all around the DCA metro station bragging about “having a heart” and not being a “machine.” UPDATE (1:13 pm): Southwest has offered two $100 vouchers. Thanks!

As far as we could tell, all we saw was a machine where several parts fell apart, including:

  • A flight crew not being ready when our initial plane was docked
  • Scheduling a flight crew with one member who was about to be maxed out on hours
  • A ticket counter lacking communication among its clerks
  • Re-booking everyone for a flight that Southwest just canceled the following morning
  • Oh yeah, our re-booked re-booked flight also left later than scheduled (this time, though, there wasn’t even a plane at the gate)

The flight attendants on our doomed first trip themselves were nice, but Southwest has a lot of work to do operationally to ensure its flights out of DCA are reliable and on-time. We do appreciate them compensating us partly for our troubles (basically, the vouchers will cover the hotel cost for one night) and I hope it’s not always like this out of DCA!

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