Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.
I should have known better than to book a flight for Groundhog Day.
I had to fly to LA for a meeting and the day was set for February 2. (Not by me, you understand.)
I booked my morning flight on Virgin America, an airline that has always offered me a very pleasant experience.
On the morning of February 1, I checked in online. Two hours later, Virgin emailed me. No, it wasn’t to wish me a Happy Birthday. It was to tell me that my flight had been canceled due to “Weather.”
I looked at the forecast. No “Weather” was expected. But I needed a flight from San Francisco at around 9 a.m. So I got my money back from Virgin (eventually) and booked on Southwest.
Yes, I tend to choose airlines that have at least a passing penchant for customer service. It’s a weakness, I know.
On the morning of February 2, there was no real “Weather.” The Southwest flight was slightly delayed, but my arrival was fine. Groundhog Day? What Groundhog Day?
This Groundhog Day.
All Hail The Southwest Email Alerts
At 4.36 p.m., I was in my LA meeting when Southwest emailed me. I’d signed up for the very useful email alert service. My 8.35 p.m. flight back to San Francisco that night was delayed to 9.50 p.m.
I’m used to delays. I’m sure you are, too. Actually, we rather expect them, don’t we?
Still, I got to the airport around 7.30 p.m., hoping to get a little dinner and even do some work.
At 8.34 p.m., Southwest emailed me again. The estimated departure time had moved again. It was now 11:15 p.m. “We encourage you to check Flight Status at www.southwest.com/status or the SWA Mobile App,” said the email.
And this I did. The web confirmed that the flight was delayed to 11.15 p.m.
At 8.47 p.m., Southwest emailed again. Departure was now estimated at 10.50 p.m. This was progress. And what a good service these emails are, I thought. Still, I checked the web. It said 11.07 p.m.
Well, it was close enough.
I had a little dinner, did some work and finally went to the food court where there was a bar showing the Golden State Warriors game against the Los Angeles Clippers.
I sat down. I’m a Warriors fan. Who can possibly like the Clippers? Watching the Clippers is worse than flying in Sub-Cattle Class.
Enter The Finance-Man-From-The-Company-Inc-Regularly-Features
The bar was almost empty and I ordered a drink. A man sitting a few seats away began to chat. People do that at airport bars.
Oddly, he turned out to be a nice man, despite the fact that he’s high up in finance at a company Inc regularly features.
He happened to be booked on the same flight as me. He, too, had signed up for the email alerts. We laughed about whether it would be 10.50 p.m., 11.07 p.m. Or even 11.15 p.m.
We talked about life, food, wine and why he would have a job for life because humanity will always need financial manipulators.
We compared ideas about Kobe Bryant. His idea: One of the greatest players of all time. My idea: Desperately overrated, borderline unwatchable, utterly devoid of memorable skills.
The evening had turned very pleasant. The Warriors were winning. What Groundhog Day? The one that had only just begun.
The Flight Went North. The Night Went South
Shortly after 10 p.m., we thought we’d saunter to the gate. Plenty of time, after all.
As we left the food court, the departure board outside said our flight was boarding. This was a slight surprise, but still. Off we scuttled a little more quickly.
The gate was perhaps a 90 seconds walk away. It was also entirely unoccupied, save for four Southwest airlines staff and two passengers who were remonstrating with them.
We didn’t initially understand why.
Then the Finance-Man-From-The-Company-Inc-Regularly-Features and I looked up and saw the sign over the gate: “Departed.”
Naturally, we asked the gate staff how this could have happened. The two remonstrators were already doing that, in a remonstrative fashion.
The gate staff insisted they’d made several announcements. But we were in a food court that played music. We heard no announcements at all. The other two people said they’d been having something to eat at the California Pizza Kitchen. It plays music too.
Oh, did I mention this was last flight of the night?
“But we had emails from Southwest,” I said to one of the gate agents, who turned out to be the supervisor.
I showed the emails to him. He showed all the interest of a Wall Street banker toward an orange peel in the gutter.
There were no apologies from these Southwest employees. They said they’d made their announcements and that was it. Other passengers had heard them.
The Finance-Man-From-The-Company-Inc-Regularly-Features asked if Southwest would at least reimburse the cost of the Uber that would be waiting for him.
“We don’t do that,” said the supervisor, still exuding all the warmth of a prison guard with ulcerous gums and hemorrhoids that played the collected works of Buddy Rich.
He also gave us a lecture about the Terms and Conditions of the boarding pass. We should have been at the gate in time for the original departure, he said.
What can one say to that?
To the question “What are we supposed to do now?”, we received a blank stare that said: “Can’t you people just get out of here, so that we can go home?”
We all asked to be rebooked on the first flight in the morning.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life before,” I said. And it was true. I haven’t. I’ve obviously been lucky. And then came the words that really showed why we were wasting our time.
“Look, I’m doing you a favor by booking you on the 7 a.m flight,” the supervisor said. “A lot of people want to be on that flight.”
I certainly didn’t remember this man dancing in any of the Southwest commercials. I certainly had hoped for a little customer service, some form of help. A little humanity would have been a start.
Finally I asked him: “So you’re not prepared to do anything for us?”
“No,” he replied.
Finding A Bed For The Night.
You might be thinking that there was inebriation involved here. On our part, that is. I didn’t even finish my one glass of (alleged) Malbec. The Finance-Man-From-The-Company-Inc-Regularly-Features didn’t even finish his one beer.
But there we were, stuck. Stuck because Southwest had told us the flight would take off at 10.50 p.m. and had gone without us long before.
I walked up to an airport policeman. I explained the situation. “I’m not surprised,” he said.
He then pointed me toward the nearest airport hotel. No one from Southwest had thought of doing that. It was either a hotel or sleep inside the airport. We had to work that out for ourselves.
The hotel cost me almost $200.
Oh, Look. Another Email From Southwest.
But this wasn’t the end. You know it wasn’t. The hotel was one of those that doesn’t let you lower the temperature much. I got to sleep around 1 a.m., with my alarm set for 5 in the morning.
I woke up at 4.30 a.m., hot.
I looked at my phone and there was the one thing I’d been hoping for. Another email from Southwest.
My 7.a.m flight had been canceled. The email asked me to call Southwest. So I did. I was greeted by Angel from Customer Service.
I explained my situation. He was the first Southwest employee to utter the word “sorry.” He also told me the 7 a.m. flight was canceled because of a mechanical problem. He then said the next possible flight was 11.15 a.m. Or would I prefer to fly to Oakland if there’s something sooner, he asked.
I explained that my car was at San Francisco, but his question would later become heart-warming.
So I went back to sleep for a couple more hours.
I’d also emailed Southwest on Groundhog Night. A customer service executive from Head Office called me around 8 a.m on February 3 and told me that my case would be used as a coaching moment for the Los Angeles ground staff. Well, that’s a relief.
He apologized and said that this was embarrassing for an airline that prides itself on being human to customers.
He was appalled that the gate supervisor had told us he was doing us a favor by rebooking us for the morning.
He also offered to pay for my hotel and the extra parking charges I’d incurred in San Francisco.
Oh, of course he didn’t.
He offered a travel credit for a much smaller amount. I learned later that the Finance-Man-From-The-Company-Inc-Regularly-Features was offered less than half that.
There’s always a certain glory about airlines that apologize by encouraging you to book again using at least some more of your own money.
The Southwest executive also said he could see that I was now booked for 11.15 a.m., that he could see it was going to be on time and that he was sure I’d have a better Southwest experience.
Still With Me? So About That Better Southwest Experience..
Groundhog Day was now over. Everything would be fine. No, I didn’t have a change of clothes, any toiletries or even a toothbrush, but I’d finally get home.
On February 3, I got to the airport in plenty of time.
I went back to the food court for a little while. That’s where the Starbucks is. I needed to be awake.
I did a little work and then, at 9.59 am., oh, no. But yes. An email from Southwest. My departure would now be 2.45 p.m.
It seems that Southwest can only email to tell me when the flight wouldn’t leave and not be at all reliable as to when it would.
But I was wise to the game now. I went over to the gate and asked a customer service representative in my most polite British accent: “Excuse me, please. Could you tell me why the San Francisco flight is delayed.”
The rep’s charm wasn’t overflowing. “Air traffic control,” she said. “All LAX flights are delayed.”
I wandered away in a stupor. The terminal isn’t enormous. I just wanted to walk, even if it was in circles. And then I saw something odd. There were words up on high, blazing in green lights, that said: “On time.”
What? How could this be possible? How could this be a Southwest flight, leaving in a few minutes? Leaving to Oakland, no less.
How could it be on time when I’d just been told all LAX flights were delayed?
I went back to the (not) nice customer service lady and said: “Could you possibly get me on the Oakland flight?”
“Sure,” she said, with deep disinterest.
“Thank you,” I replied. “Why didn’t you mention this flight before?”
“Well, you asked me about San Francisco,” she huffed. Perhaps she doesn’t know Angel.
So I got on the flight, still had to make my way from Oakland to San Francisco to pick up my car and got home roughly 17 hours after the scheduled time.
All because Southwest email alert system doesn’t seem to work.
If Southwest could email me twice within 14 minutes informing me of a 25-minute difference in departure, it could surely have emailed me something near the actual departure time. Oh, what am I saying? Why do I have any expectations? I might as well snort soot.
You have, I’m sure, had far worse airline experiences than this. I’d be happy to hear them, if you can bear to relive them. Venting might help you.
But this was Southwest, which I’d praised only a few days ago for its customer-centric approach. So what did I learn?
Here Beginneth And Endeth Today’s Lesson
I’ll understand if you tell me that I’m a fool and I should have just sat at the gate for hours on end. Passengers are supposed to suffer, after all.
I’ll understand if you tell me that I was plain unlucky, that we got some hapless gate staff who just wanted to go home.
I’ll understand if you tell me that I should have listened out for announcements, even though there were none to be heard, nor any reason to expect them, given that Southwest was emailing me so efficiently.
But I’ll point you to the recent case of tech writer Paul Thurrott, who was specifically told by a JetBlue gate agent that his flight out of Las Vegas wouldn’t be leaving until 7.30 a.m the next morning.
He went back to his hotel. When he woke up, he got a texted notification to tell him his flight had left hours before.
In the end, the only lesson is the same one Thurrott learned: it’s pointless to believe any communication from airlines.
Do I think the Virgin America flight was canceled because of “Weather”? Do I believe Kim Jong-Il is the all-time greatest golfer?
How could the airline have known a day in advance, when on the day itself my Southwest flight at the the same time wasn’t especially delayed? I asked Virgin. I didn’t get an answer.
It seems your only recourse, even if your flight is delayed, is to stay at the gate, even if it’s for hours and hours and hours and you’re hungry and bursting beyond bladder health.
Otherwise, make sure that the airport you’re at has high-end Bose speakers, offering a far more efficient announcement system than does LAX.
When I asked the customer service executive from Southwest’s Head Office why the one email that would have been useful — the one that would have told us when the plane would actually leave — was never sent, he said there had clearly been a communication failure.
But still, the gate agent at LAX had it right, in all his abject lack of even simulated interest in our situation.
Too many airlines think they’re doing passengers a favor.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.