My flight got delayed two hours in Greenville, but the gate agent there said our connecting flight in Atlanta was also delayed so they would likely hold it for the 11 people connecting to Kansas City. Upon landing in Atlanta, we rushed to the connecting gate only to find out that our flight went from “delayed” to “cancelled.” And from the looks of lines about 40 deep at each gate of Terminal C in Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the world’s busiest, so had nearly every other Southwest flight.
After about two hours, I got to the agent, who apologized for the inconvenience and immediately gave a $200 voucher. Then he went to work diligently trying to find me a flight to Kansas City. He said if I was willing to travel through the night, he could get me on a 12:25 a.m. flight connecting in St. Louis and getting me to Kansas City about 4 a.m. I just wanted to keep moving instead of the uncertain floundering at the airport or having to go to a hotel, so I eagerly accepted.
After an hour-long delay, we boarded the 12:25 a.m. flight at 1:30 a.m. The collective relief of the 120-plus passengers on the plane was short-lived. The gate agent came on board and told us we would have to de-board, saying the pilot had “timed-out,” meaning the pilot had flown too many hours already. Those who had not already realized it quickly ascertained that this was due to a staffing shortage more than weather-related.
I figured Southwest was a lost cause for a few days so I was able to book a pricey flight on Delta the next afternoon. I took an Uber to the Airport Westin Marriott hotel, where upon check-in, they said they have no running water and offered me two bottled waters if I still wanted to stay there. At 2:45 a.m., I figured I could get some sleep, and brush my teeth and wash my face with the bottled water so I reluctantly accepted.
When I awoke at 7 a.m., I already had two e-mails from Delta that my 1 p.m. flight was delayed to 3 p.m. and then 5 p.m. Could this really be happening at Delta too? I figured it wasn’t going to do any good sitting around the hotel since security lines were going to be a nightmare so I made my way to airport way early. With so much time before my 5 p.m. Delta flight, I thought I would throw a Hail Mary and go to the Southwest Terminal.
Not much had changed. Lines were still 40 deep. I saw some of the same long, tired faces from the night before. And there were no destination cities on the digital boards at the gates because Southwest couldn’t be sure if the flights would actually depart. Then to my astonishment, I heard on the speaker “Final call for Group C to Kansas City at Gate C7.”
I rushed to C7 only to find a long line. I didn’t have a ticket and wasn’t on standby so I figured my chances of getting on this flight were a million-to-one. Striking up a conversation with the person in front of me I learned she was going to Chicago, not KC. She said the four people standing right next to the gate agent were going on standby going to KC. I stepped out of line to find out the plane was being held while the clearly exhausted gate agent was working relentlessly to get the four standby passengers on the flight. When the agent lifted her eyes from the computer screen for a milli-second, I asked politely: “I know this is a long-shot because I’m not on standby, but if there is one seat left after you get these four on, could be get me on and I’ll pay whatever is needed?”
“I’m going to get you on no matter what!” she replied with will and determination. Suddenly, I had an angel on my side - an advocate who was willing to do whatever it took to get me home.
She finished the ticketing for the four on standby fighting the clunky computer “System” all the way. As she sent them to the gate she yelled to the agent taking boarding passes: “Hold the plane! We got one more.”
She quickly went to work on getting me a ticket, which apparently the “System” wanted to do even less. The agent taking boarding passes yelled, “We gotta go!” “My” agent – my angel - replied: “Nope, we’re getting him on!”
She went to her supervisor who was three gates away, but he too couldn’t beat the “System.” When she came back, I started thanking her for going the extra mile. Her reply, “Nope, I’m not done. I’m calling to get you on.”
She called someone, somewhere who was clearly not affiliated with the “System” or at least knew how to overcome it. She emerged from the conversation with a boarding pass, which felt like a winning mega-millions lottery ticket. I thanked her profusely and stopped just short of giving her a hug. Part of the line broke out in applause – probably more because she could now help them!
From a business standpoint, I’ve generally been impressed with Southwest’s front-line people for more than 20 years. They live the culture Southwest Founder Herb Kelleher developed – always focus on the customer first and have fun while doing it. But she was the best of the best I’ve seen from Southwest.
Southwest’s recent leadership did their people – and their customers - a disservice by not investing in a better “System” for years, even at the behest of their pilots and flight attendants. I’ve seen multiple posts from current and former Southwest employees saying they begged the executive team to upgrade their reservation systems and their technology to book flight crews -who to this day have to make a phone call to find out their assignments.
Those posts indicated that the CEO and COO had finance and accounting backgrounds and were focused on metrics such as stock price, short-term profits, quarterly results, etc. They balked at investing in technology to put their committed people in a position they can excel for their customers.
Businesses and brands - even highly successful brands like Southwest Airlines - that are guided by short-term gains and don’t have invest in sustainable success starting with their people and then the tools and resources to help those people deliver on the promise the brand makes to their customers will inevitably have the kinds of weeks that Southwest had last week – or worse. I believe Southwest had built significant brand equity and credibility with enough customers that they can rebound.
But only if they value their people enough to invest as deeply as their people invest in their customers.