Southwest is Trying to Ruin My Vacation

Posted by on Oct 16, 2015 in Complaints | 0 comments

Southwest is Trying to Ruin My Vacation

So my good friend Mal decided to have a destination wedding in Punta Cana. I am a travel junkie, and here’s the chance to go to the Dominican Republic. Fun!

As I was looking for flights, I found a little promo in the sidebar for Southwest Vacations, which sells flight and hotel packages together. And they’ve got some pretty good deals on there! I found a great deal for a flight from DCA to PUJ along with 4 days at the Royalton Punta Cana Resort where my friend’s wedding is being held. Perfect! Well, not so much…

I get to the airport at the crack of dawn this morning to catch my flight. Check-in is quick, but the guy who’s checking boarding passes on the way into security does not let me into TSA Pre-Check. I included my Known Traveler ID when I booked my reservation online, and I’m holding a Global Entry card right here in my hand. But since “TSA Pre-Check” is not printed on my Southwest boarding pass, I am denied entry into the TSA Pre-Check line. So into the regular line I go, off come the shoes and belt, out comes the laptop. Turns out that Southwest does not partner with TSA for Pre-Check on any international flights. Excellent.

I get to the gate and board my plane. Southwest has this unconventional boarding policy where you can sit wherever you like on the place. The first open seat I see is 2A, a window seat. Unfortunately, there is a woman soundly sleeping in 2C. She has been on the plane less than 10 minutes and she is passed out under a blanket. In the middle seat is her husband. I ask him if that window seat is taken, so he WAKES HIS WIFE and asks her if the window seat is taken. She throws her arms around and grumbles as if I’ve grossly inconvenienced her before standing up to let me in.

Issue #1

IMG_0528Moments after pulling away from the gate, the captain gets on the speaker and announces that there is some sort of alert in the cockpit about the right engine. He says we’ll be pulling back into the gate so that engineers can take a look at the issue. Sure, I’m glad that we’re looking at things rather than taking off with a damaged engine, but an hour later, we’re all still sitting in the plane and the captain says he has no update yet.

A service agent came through the plane and started picking out the passengers who would be missing their connecting flights due to the delay. First, the Austin folks got screwed. Then the Ft. Myers folks. Then me.

After inconveniencing the sleepy wife once again, getting off the plane, and being directed to the Southwest Airlines service desk right outside of Gate 4, I join a line with other passengers. Many are agitated, but I’m trying my best to stay cool.

Issue #2

The representative tells me I have two options. I can a) take the next Southwest flight to PUJ (which is tomorrow since Southwest only flies there once a day), or b) book my own one-way ticket to PUJ on another airline without compensation.

OK, both of these options suck. If I stick with Southwest, I lose a day of my vacation. One-way tickets on other airlines from DCA/IAD/BWI to PUJ were $600+. In the end, the decision is made for me when all of the available flights on other airlines depart while I am standing there waiting for the Southwest rep to get off the phone.

Finally, the rep tells me that I have two flight options for tomorrow. I can take a shorter flight out of BWI tomorrow or a longer flight out of DCA. DCA is more convenient for me, so I choose that one.

The rep hands me a voucher for future travel. A nice gesture, but not nearly enough to make up for a missed day of vacation, other travel arrangements, and the hotel room I’m paying for but not staying in tonight…

Issue #3

I call Southwest Vacations to explain what just happened with my Southwest flights. I ask her if there an adjustment can be made to the cost of the hotel reservation since my vacation was cut short by a day due to a problem with my Southwest flight. The agent, Rosemary, tells me that nothing can be done with pricing of my hotel since they are continuing to hold the room for me. Excuse me? I am paying for a hotel room at an all-inclusive resort that I will not be in because of a broken Southwest plane engine!

From the airport, I head into work (why not, since I’m not on vacation). I take a few minutes to examine my flight for tomorrow and realize that I am connecting through Chicago. DC to Chicago to the Dominican Republic. Look at a map. Total flight time for my trip tomorrow will be almost 9 hours. The flight out of BWI is non-stop and about 3.5 hours.

The difference between these flights was something I could not properly process in the airport when I was given my flight options because my agent seemed to want to move things along quickly and there was a long line of very angry people breathing down my neck. I chose poorly. But maybe I could switch to take the BWI flight after all?

Screen Shot 2015-10-16 at 2.46.16 PMI get on southwest.com and see a convenient “Change reservation” link. I click it, but I’m greeted with an error message:

“Oops! Your reservation contains modifications that prevent you from changing it online. Please contact a Southwest Airlines Customer Representative for assistance at 1-800-I-FLY-SWA (1-800-435-9792).”

Issue #4

I call the Southwest Airlines customer service number and explain my situation. The agent tells me that she can’t touch the reservation now that the airport has taken it over. If I want to make any changes, she says, I need to GO TO THE AIRPORT and make them in person. Seriously? After all this, I need to go back to the airport to change my flight so that I don’t have to fly out of that airport?

There must be a way to CALL the Southwest desk at DCA, right? Well guess what, there’s not. I found a main line to DCA, but the woman I spoke to told me that since 9/11, you cannot contact airlines directly at the airport. Wonderful.

Come on, Southwest. I always liked your casual and friendly approach to flying, the little jingles that your flight attendants sing every once in a while, and even your “bold blue” airplanes. But this sucks.

Right now, my friends are all in Punta Cana right now drinking piña coladas poolside. I wish I was confident that I’d be joining them tomorrow. I also wish I was not flying to Chicago tomorrow, and I also wish I was paying for only the time I was actually in my hotel room.

Update #1

After being encouraged by some consumer rights advocates at work, I took to Twitter:

After work, I made my way back to DCA to visit the Southwest Airlines ticket counter. I spoke with a rep named Nancy. After much keyboarding and twenty minutes on the phone, Nancy got me onto tomorrow’s flight out of BWI.

I explained my whole story to Nancy and asked her if Southwest might be able to cover my transportation up to BWI or a hotel for the night. After briefly speaking with her supervisor, she returned to say, with a straight face, “We can’t do that because we’ve already accommodated you.”

Really? Have you really accommodated me, Southwest?

I wondered if it was worth going home to sleep for a couple of hours before getting up and making my way to Baltimore. Standing at the airport with my bags backed and ready to go, I decided to just head up to Baltimore and sort things out up there. I’ve just paid for a shuttle up to BWI and am currently deciding between sleeping in the airport terminal or paying out of pocket for a hotel tonight.

Update #2

Southwest just replied to my tweet. Let’s see if they’re able to salvage this.

Update #3

Nope. I sent them my confirmation number and an update to my situation, and they privately replied with this:

Jeff, per our Contract of Carriage, we do not reimburse for interim expenses. We truly apologize for any disappointment. – Kayla

So I replied back with this:

What about the part of the contract where the engines on your planes are supposed to work?

I’ve lost a day of my vacation and am out of pocket for about $300 because of a problem on one of Southwest’s planes. That’s of no concern to Southwest?

I guess I’m wondering why you publicly asked me to DM my confirmation number to “follow up” if you really intended to do nothing.

They ended with this:

Jeff, we welcome the opportunity to hear our Customers feedback. Without a doubt, cancellations and delays are frustrating for everyone involved, including us. Our sincere apologies for any continued inconvenience. – Kayla

I’m sorry, Southwest. That’s a big, fat FAIL.

Despite your best attempts to ruin my vacation, I’m going to get down to Punta Cana. And I’m going to think really hard about ever flying with you again. You have happy people and pretty planes and good prices, but when the shit hits the fan, your customer service truly sucks.

Update #4

I called around for a cheap hotel room near the airport, but everything was sold out. I didn’t want to splurge for an expensive room at the Sheraton, especially if Southwest wasn’t going to be helping me with it, so I decided that I would be spending the night at the airport. I found some round leather benches in front of Dunkin’ Donuts and tried my hardest to get some sleep. Airports aren’t very comfortable.

Got up the next morning to catch my flight. The plane was delayed on the tarmac for a few minutes because the toilets were blocked. Fantastic! After the plumber came to flush out the problem, we were delayed another few minutes because of a “traffic jam” behind the plane. At this point, I just started laughing. What’s next? Broken tail light? Pilot has a hangnail?

Finally got to PUJ and headed to the resort. When checking in, the guy at the desk said that there were two reservations for me, one reservation for one room and another reservation for four rooms. And they wanted to collect payment for the room because they hadn’t been paid for. Thanks, Southwest!

Update #5

Had a good vacation and then went to the airport to catch my flight home. Surprisingly, everything went without a hitch.

One more thing, though. The whole Southwest “open seating” thing doesn’t really work. The earlier you check in, the better placement you get in the line to board the plane. The problem is that, at least in Punta Cana, everyone gets shuffled up when they board a shuttle bus to take you from the gate to the plane. They get shuffled up again when people get off the shuttle bus and are randomly assigned to board either through the front or rear entrance of the plane.

Then, when you get on the plane, people inevitably take aisle seats first, requiring people to keep getting up when others want a seat closer to the window. And then there are the folks who pretend like they’re saving a seat just so that they can have more space. Or the ones who huff and puff when you ask them to get up so that you can grab a seat near the window. And the creepers who will want to put themselves next to a good-looking woman. And then the people who board last who have to sit next to the fat guy or the screaming baby. And then there are the groups who have no hope of sitting together. On my flight, there was a husband and wife who had to do some scrambling just so they could sit next to each other.

How does any of this make boarding faster or more pleasant? Southwest would say that this encourages you to talk to your fellow passengers. You know what? I booked transportation, not conversation. Sometimes, I really don’t like talking to strangers, especially when Southwest has made me grumpy.

After my continued shitting on Southwest over Twitter, they privately reached out again to offer me another voucher for future travel. I replied:

I do appreciate your follow-up and offer. The difference is that the vouchers that Southwest offers me are for future travel, and given the experience I’ve had over the last few days, I am not sure that I want to travel with Southwest again, even for free.

If you’re asking me what it would take to make it right, it’s a credit to cover the 1 night at the Royalton resort that I paid for but was not able to use because of a mechanical problem with a Southwest Airlines plane.

Their response included this:

Please know that our main purpose in providing vouchers such as the one we’ve offered is to provide a tangible invitation to return under more favorable circumstances, rather than provide specific “compensation” for lost time or missed events, as it would be impossible for us to put a price tag on a person’s individual inconvenience. We are unable to meet your request of reimbursing your hotel expense, and I hope that you accept the voucher in the spirit intended.

I guess a voucher is better than nothing. Not sure when I’ll want to use it, though.

I’ll be calling my credit card company, Capital One, to try to get some sort of refund for the hotel night I couldn’t use but was charged for by Southwest. More to come.

Update #6

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 12.06.15 PMAfter some back and forth collecting the proper documentation, Capital One filed a dispute on my behalf. Southwest Vacations has 90 days to respond before credit to my account becomes permanent.

They just sent me an automated survey to tell them how my trip went. Fun!

Update #7

Presumably in response to my survey, got this note from Beth O’Connor at The Mark Travel Corporation, which apparently is the the real company behind Southwest Vacations. I guess they pay to use the Southwest name.

Dear Mr. Nyveen,

Thank you for completing our survey related to your trip to Punta Cana. We appreciate the time you took to share your feedback as this information is instrumental in guiding us towards complete Customer satisfaction.

I am sorry for the difficulties you experienced with this reservation. After receiving your survey, I first contacted management at the Royalton Punta Cana Resort & Casino and received authorization to refund the unused first night of your stay. The refund amount is $136.74 and I have notified our Accounting Department of the response from the hotel. However, as you have filed a dispute with your credit card company, we will be responding to your credit card company as well.

You also have my sincere apologies for the frustration you experienced with Southwest Airlines. Please first allow me to explain that Southwest Airlines contracts with The Mark Travel Corporation to provide their Customers with vacations under the name “Southwest Airlines Vacations”. As Southwest Airlines’ contracted Vacation Company, we combine their air seats with hotels, ground transportation, and optional features. As we do not have access to the records of the airline, I contacted Southwest Airlines to investigate this matter. I was advised they are going to investigate your concerns and respond back to you directly. As Southwest Airlines shares the same dedication to Customer Service as we do, I am confident they will take your concerns very seriously.

Let me also assure that I have logged all of your comments and the ratings of all aspects of your vacation for monitoring purposes. This information is shared with various departments in our organization so that our services and our supplier related services are continually monitored and improved.

Again, thank you for taking the time to fill out the survey and for choosing Southwest Airlines Vacations. We hope to have the pleasure of serving you again soon trusting your next experience with us will be pleasant in every way.

Sincerely,

SOUTHWEST AIRLINES VACATIONS
Operated by The Mark Travel Corporation

Beth O’Connor
Post Travel Specialist
Customer Services

I replied:

Ms. O’Connor,

Thank you so much for your thoughtful note. It certainly explains some things that I was not aware of, like the relationship between your two companies. I commend you for taking the time to reach out.

I also appreciate your effort to reach out to the Royalton and get the refund for the night I wasn’t there. This was all I wanted all along. (Well, along with covering the shuttle I needed to use to take me to another airport and a hotel room so that I didn’t have to sleep in the food court of BWI.) How is it that you are authorized to process a refund for a customer but none of the dozen people I spoke with at Southwest Airlines and Mark Travel along the way were not?

I also appreciate you reaching out to Southwest Airlines, though your comment that they share your dedication to customer service is hard for me to believe. They didn’t budge an inch to accommodate me or address any of my concerns while I was en route, and their public and private Twitter responses to my complaints were laughable.

When should I expect the Royalton refund to be posted to my credit card? As of this evening, it has not come through.

Thank you,

-j

And her final note:

Dear Mr. Nyveen,

I checked with our Accounting Department and found the refund of $136.74 was issued on December 1st. Therefore, it should post to your account within five business days.

As for your other question, unfortunately the other people that you spoke to were advised by the hotel that we would be billed in full and no refund could be issued for the unused night. I was able to speak to a different manager at the hotel that did give authorization for the refund.

Thanks,

Beth O’Connor | Post Travel Customer Service | The Mark Travel Corporation

Update #8

Also in response to my survey, or perhaps a nudge from The Mark Travel Corporation, just got this email from Lexie at Southwest Airlines:

Dear Jeffrey,

Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts regarding your October 16 travel experience. As you know, Mark Travel Corporation made us aware of your feedback. We were pleased to know that Mark Travel Corporation addressed your concerns pertaining to your hotel, and we welcome the opportunity to follow-up with you regarding your travel to Punta Cana.

I can understand your frustrations with the mechanical challenges that caused the delay of Flight #200, especially considering that you were traveling for your friend’s wedding. Our ongoing comprehensive maintenance program helps keep our aircraft in excellent condition, but unexpected mechanical problems sometimes arise despite our best efforts. Though we sincerely regret inconveniencing our Customers, we will not operate a flight under conditions that could jeopardize the Safety of our Customers and Crew Members. We apologize that this delay would’ve caused you to miss your connection in Atlanta, and that you stayed an additional night in Baltimore as a result.

It is important to note that Southwest provides the option for a Customer to either have his/her air fare refunded if the Customer chooses not to travel on Southwest or to be accommodated on the next available Southwest flight to his/her destination. Customers who continue with their travel after learning of our operational challenges do so knowing incidental expenses may be incurred such as food and lodging. In this situation, we do not provide reimbursement for interim expenses. I regret your disappointment, though I am happy to see that we reaccommodated you to Punta Cana the following day.

In regards to changing your flight online after you were reaccommodated, your reservations were initially changed by a Southwest Airlines Customer Service Representative at the airport. Once modifications are made by us to Customer’s reservation, it cannot be changed online. I regret any inconvenience in this regard. Additionally, I apologize for your initial disappointment when you not able to use TSA PreCheck. At this time, the Transportation Security Administration’s PreCheck program is not supported for Southwest travel itineraries that include an international destination.

Finally, I am sorry you were disappointed with the boarding process in Punta Cana when you were taken by bus to board your aircraft on October 17. Unlike our domestic airports, it may be necessary to board by air stairs at a remote gate at some of our international stations. All flights on Southwest are “open-seating,” and Customers are free to take any available seat onboard the aircraft. Our open-seating policy comes with good points and challenges, and I am sorry you were disappointed with the handling of this particular situation.

As you were advised by our Social Care Team via Twitter, we do not cover interim expenses. However, I was glad to see you were issued a $250.00 Southwest LUV Voucher (SLV) from our Social Care Team and an additional voucher at the airport. We hope you will take advantage of the vouchers that you received for your next trip and have a much more pleasant experience.

We wish that we could erase such an unpleasant memory Jeffrey; unfortunately, we cannot, but we can encourage you to let us create a new one by traveling with us again soon. Your patronage is very important to us.

Sincerely,

Lexie, Southwest Airlines

My response:

Lexie,

Thanks for taking the time to respond.

I never expected Southwest Airlines to fly with a questionable engine. The thing I had a problem with was when I was told to either a) make my own way down to Punta Cana on my own at increased cost with no compensation from Southwest, or b) go the next day and lose a night of my hotel with no compensation from Southwest. To me, both options were unacceptable.

I understand Southwest doesn’t have alliances with other airlines, and that putting me on another flight at 100% cost to Southwest would have been expensive, but when it is Southwest’s mechanical problem at the root of the issue, and because I was the ONLY one on that plane who was flying to Punta Cana that day, I feel that it would have been appropriate for Southwest to step up and take some responsibility in the matter.

I appreciate the follow-up and the vouchers that Southwest has offered me for future travel, but what they did in the moment did little to make want to fly with them again. I plan to leave my blog post up so that people can know what kind of customer service to expect when something goes wrong with a vacation booked on Southwest Airlines.

-j

Just as I was about to send it off, I realized that her email was sent from no-reply@customercommunications.southwest.com and “This is a post-only mailing from Southwest Airlines. Please do not attempt to respond to this message.” appears in the footer. Nice customer communications, Southwest.

Update #9

After finally getting the credit refund from Ms. O’Connor, I got a follow-up letter from Capital One telling me that with the refund from the merchant, the case is closed. So I guess that’s it.

Southwest sucks.

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