Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The true cost of Bags Flying Free

Every year for the Fourth of July, I go to Chicago to visit family. Also around this time is my cousin's neighborhood famous birthday party. Celebrated with ridiculous amounts of food, friends and fun this is an event I greatly anticipate attending. I mean who wouldn't like a party with tons of home cooked food and a corner fireworks show that could at many moment light someone on fire?

This year, the weekend prior to the Fourth was also my family's reunion in Minneapolis. This was the first time in decades I had been to this family's (my father's mother's side of the family) reunion and my first trip to Minnesota. I'd planned to fly into Chicago the day before the reunion and drive to Minneapolis for the weekend. This solved the problems of a) having a car, as we would rent it in Chicago and have it for the length of our trip and b) being able to afford to fly to Minneapolis (as the air fare was twice the cost of flying into Chicago).  But everyone knows about best laid plans – rarely do they usually don't go according to, well, plan.

The night I left Dallas, June 29th, there was a freak thunderstorm in Chicago and it knocked out the power at both airports, Midway and O'Hare. My plane was diverted to quite possibly the worse airport it could have been diverted to, Nashville, TN. What's wrong with Nashville, you ask? It's an airport in a small market. All the flights out of the city were already sold out before I was stranded there. So me and 300 other people were trying to get to Chicago on eight flights already sold out.

Remember my great plan to drive to Minneapolis from Chicago? Now, not happening. I'm not used to being stuck anywhere without a backup plan, blame girl scouts or too many crime shows but being prepared is important to me. This was the first time is years I had a problem I didn't have a solution to. I felt helpless and forgotten and the airline I was flying, Southwest, did little to help me feel otherwise. Here's the letter I composed to sent to their Customer Service department. I tried to find an email address associated with an actual human being who would read it in a timely matter and respond but apparently company email addresses are a trade secret at Southwest Airlines.

So here, for the internet to read, is my letter of disappointment. I won't say I'll never fly Southwest again but I can tell you my bags flying "free" will no longer be a reason I go to them first.

Dear Teresa Laraba, SVP of Customer Service, 
As the Senior Vice President of customer service and a person who is very proud to work for a company known the world over for its customer service, I would like to inform you of the trip I took Thursday June 29th.
I left Dallas at 8:30 pm on my way to Chicago, IL. I am sure you are aware of the Wright Amendment preventing Southwest from flying directly out of Love Field into Chicago's Midway airport. This meant my plane into Chicago had to come from Houston's Hobby airport. My flight left Houston around 10pm and once it was in the air, a severe thunderstorm in Downtown Chicago causes Midway (and O'Hare) airports to shutdown. This caused all incoming flights to this airport to be diverted. The flight I was on was diverted to Nashville, TN. Before the plane was unloaded, we were told that all the flights for the next day were already sold out and that the line we needed to stand in to talk to a Southwest representative  already had 300 people in it.

After waiting in this line for two hours, I was told by the gate agent the only way I could fly out of the airport was to fly standby and I was not guaranteed a seat on a flight to Chicago until Saturday evening. I was also told I could not stay in the terminal over night as the airport was closing. I asked where I was supposed to go for the night, and the gate agent shrugged her shoulders. By this time it was 3:30 in the morning. I was tired, as I had worked all day, and extremely frustrated to be in a city where I knew no one, had no way of leaving and was apparently going to be until Saturday night.

Because I had no place to sleep that night, I stayed up and waited in the ticket counter line so I could speak to someone as soon as the counter opened. I should mentions one of the reasons I chose to fly instead of drive from Dallas to Chicago was because of time. I needed to be in Chicago before 8:00 am Friday, June 30th but had to be at work on Thursday, June 29th. If my schedule was not time sensitive, I would have driven to my destination. Now, because my flight had been diverted, do to an event no one could have prevented or predicted, I missed my deadline. 
When the counter opened at 4:30am I spoke with an associate and asked her if she could put me on standby to any flight going to Minneapolis, MN. She refused to do this, and told me Southwest is only contractually obligated to get me to Chicago. I told her I needed to be in Chicago June 30th by 8:00am and since that was an impossibility because of the storm, now what I needed was to be in Minneapolis as soon as possible. She told me the reason I missed my window was not the fault of Southwest and that Southwest only had to get me to Chicago, the earliest time available was a 9:55pm flight Friday, June 30th, evening and there was a possibility that I might get a seat on that flight.  
I told the associate I was aware of the fact that no one asked for the storm nor was I blaming or trying to hold Southwest at fault for this event but want I needed as a customer was to be in Minneapolis, not Chicago, tonight. She told me I didn't understand, that Southwest wasn't responsible for getting me to anyplace but Chicago. I asked her if she would please speak to a manager about this issue as I was told something different by the gate agent the evening before. She did ask her manager and once again told me I didn't understand, that Southwest was only obligated to get me to Chicago. 
This was when I walked away from the ticket counter as the associate didn't seem to understand my needs as a customer. It was 5:00am Friday morning at the time and I had been up for twenty four hours, I had been stranded in an airport that I was incapable of leaving for probably two days, I was offered no hotel or rest area to stay in until I could arrange for alternative travel and most disappointingly, my problem was not seen as important enough for someone to help me find another solution to my problem. Thought the storm inconvenienced a large number of people, all I wanted was some service and to know I mattered as a customer. This Is not how I felt at any point in time that I was stranded at the Nashville airport.

In order to get to my destination, I had to find alternative means (renting a car and driving) which caused me to incur an additional cost of $202. This made me rethink my decision to fly with Southwest knowing that if I had taken American Airlines, Delta, or United, not only would I have had been put in a hotel over night, I would have had a seat on another plane, what another airline if necessary, the next day. I am also aware that this type of customer service would have given to me at no additional cost.

After the poor handling of this situation, I can not say that Southwest will be an airline I do business with for quite sometime. You have lost my trust as a company that can fulfill its promises on service agreements. I know this was an event no one expected but the handling of this situation was extremely disappointing and frankly not worth the $60 in additional baggage fees I "saved" by flying SW.

Sorely disappointed,

Sydnie Montgomery

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