What’s up with Southwest? (San Diego Transcript)

This column is about Southwest Airlines. But it’s not about what you think: the failure of one of its 737 aircraft that had part of its skin peel away. It’s about its failure of technology, of customer service and of communications.

Southwest Airlines has been one of the best airlines for both business and personal travelers because it treated all its travelers with respect and fairness, and communicated its policies clearly. As a business traveler, I frequently change trips at the last minute and, unlike other airlines that charge $150, Southwest doesn’t penalize its customers for making a change, other than paying the prevailing fare.

Its technology behind the scenes was superb as well. Credit for a canceled flight would show up within seconds in your account, and e-mails and faxes confirming your reservations appeared equally fast.

Southwest’s website was the best in the industry, with its transparency of pricing that provided a clear picture of all of your flight options. You could compare the fares for dozens of flights, one leg at a time, and not have to decipher other airlines’ mysterious round trip fares.

As an added incentive, frequent travelers have been able to avoid long lines at security, and those who travel 50 round trips in a year are able to earn a companion pass so that their designated companion flies free whenever they fly together. All of these things have made Southwest my airline of choice, prompting me to abandon two others on which I had accumulated more than 2 million miles.

But recently Southwest has experienced what seems like a meltdown. It’s transformed the best website in the business to one that is full of bugs, unable to do what it once did so well.

Along with its website failures, Southwest’s customer service has plummeted. And in spite of all these difficulties, there’s been no communications to its customers or any acknowledgement that things are not right. While it’s too early to be certain, these problems may be symptomatic of a company that’s changing much more than its website. It may be changing its direction and policies, moving away from what’s worked so well.

On March 1, as it moved its Rapid Rewards program from one that rewarded fliers based on segments flown to one based mostly on the price of the ticket, it did a huge makeover of its website. But the site never came online as expected and many customers were unable to book or change their flights. When they couldn’t get online the only option was to call its 1-800 line. But calls to that number resulted in long waits of an hour or more, if they were able to get through at all. Before March 1, Southwest was known for answering calls within a minute or two.

And that’s continued. Several times this past week, when my wife called customer service using both the normal number as well as a special number for its A-Preferred frequent fliers, the hold times were 40 minutes.

When the site finally came back up a few days later, frequent fliers’ rewards were hard to access and parts of the website were inaccessible or did not work. Those used to booking flights with a companion pass found the pages missing and needed to call an agent. It was no longer possible to book an award online using the old awards for anyone other than the person that earned it. And no longer was it possible to see a list of upcoming flights other than the very next one, although that was just corrected.

But the problems were even worse for its SWABIZ customers, the service Southwest offers to small businesses to manage their companies’ travels. According to Andy Abramson, CEO of Communicano in Del Mar, without any announcement, Southwest removed many of the major benefits of the service.

SWABIZ used to provide a dashboard that allowed a company’s travel manager to manage flights for their employees and ensure any changes were credited to the company. Southwest has now removed this dashboard-like capability, eliminating easy oversight and increasing the potential for fraud or employee dishonesty. Now instead of interacting with an account manager assigned to the business, companies interact with a general e-mail address with no personal contact. When Abramson contacted Southwest, he was told the changes were a “business decision” based upon the cost to deliver the new Rapid Rewards program.

Joe Brancatelli, a noted airline industry analyst and publisher of a weekly online newsletter for frequent travelers (joesentme.com), recently reported that the airline’s once-impeccable on-time rating has collapsed (by marquis clark at testsforge). Southwest has been near the bottom of the Transportation Department’s on-time ratings with just 62-68 percent of its planes on schedule for several months preceding the recent incident after which it took flights out of service. That ranks 38th and 39th out of 42 carriers.

Much of the impact of these changes and problems could have been mitigated if Southwest had communicated and explained its changes and difficulties. But instead, it denied the problems existed, refused to provide any meaningful information, and, according to Brancatelli, stonewalled those trying to find out what was happening.

As a frequent flier on Southwest, taking two or three flights each week, over the last few months I’ve experienced the near doubling of fares and schedule cutbacks with nearly all flights flying at full capacity. Two weeks ago, an early morning flight to San Jose was canceled 15 minutes before flight time and passengers were left to scramble for themselves to find alternative flights. The gate agent was unable to book most of the passengers on later flights because all were sold out and no compensation was offered.

So under the guise of changes to its Rapids Rewards program, Southwest appears to be incorporating many more changes to its policies and practices that contradict what the airline was founded on: fairness, transparency and great service.

I asked Southwest to comment. A spokesperson admitted functionality issues with its website (which still exists today) and a high call volume that created long wait times, but said the call volume has returned to normal. However, there was no explanation as to why the long wait times still persist. As to why they are near last place in on-time ratings, apparently it’s the fault of the other airlines, not Southwest: “We’re right where we were, but suddenly we dropped well off the top-10 list. That’s more because the other airlines have made changes to their operation to move the numbers up as opposed to us moving down.”

Addendum: I just discovered if you travel one way on a round trip ticket you do not get points for the flight you took until you use the return segment on another flight. Here’s the message:

“This ticket was not completely flown. Rapid Rewards Points will not be deposited until the entire ticket has been flown, exchanged or refunded (if applicable).”

My advice: Book all your trips as one-ways.