Southwest Airlines has come under fire for kicking portly director Kevin Smith off a flight to Burbank, claiming he violated their “Customers of Size” policy. His Twitter rants against the airline are viscious, foul-mouthed, and admittedly, rather entertaining. (His 90-minute podcast, in which he tells the airline to go f*$& itself could frankly use an editor…)
I’m not sure there’s much value in taking outright sides in this battle, I’ll offer unsolicited suggestions for Southwest and other airlines.
- Make your policy clearer.
Southwest needs to make clear — early on — who is too large for one seat and who isn’t. Smith has argued that he’s not “too fat to fly,” despite being a large man, and that he bought the extra seat in the first place in order to secure a privacy-zone of sorts. So he’s shy. Fine. But he’s also not exactly a small guy, and arguably at the border of the two-seat rule. (See recent video of him in action.) I’m not making a call that he is or isn’t too large for those seats — the airline should, and the customer needs proof. Southwest — or any airline with a passenger-of-size policy like theirs — needs to be able to make that call before the passenger gets near the gate. I could swear I saw a row of airline seats behind the Southwest check-in areas at Midway years ago. That sort of “test drive” space should be standard — and more discretely hidden out of public view than my memory serves.
- Clarify your standby/rebooking policy for passengers who booked multiple seats.
Smith had booked two seats but stood by for an earlier flight. If the passenger booked two seats, make sure both of those seats stand by for the next flight. If both don’t clear, the passenger shouldn’t clear. Jerking someone around by clearing them and revoking their boarding pass(es) at the last minute is unprofessional.
- Don’t publicly shame people for their size
Perhaps the most disturbing tale from Smith’s rants is the anecdote of the treatment of another passenger of size on a subsequent flight: She had an empty seat next to her, but was apparently berated publicly for not having purchased a second seat. Having a “passengers of size” policy is fine. But it’s not necessary to shame someone.
- Don’t mock a complainer
Southwest’s public reply to Smith was entitled “Not So Silent Bob,” a reference to his character “Silent Bob” in the film Clerks. But that plays a little too cute. When you’re being savaged in social media, I think a more serious — and sincere — tone is warranted. For an airline that “gets” social media as well as Southwest does, this has been an uncharacteristically ham-fisted handling of a high profile challenge.
Whether or not Smith needed a seatbelt extender or fit between the armrests is no longer relevant. What matters now is how the airline treats its customers, going forward.
“Fees don’t fly with us” — so goes the ad for Southwest. But is Southwest Airlines backing off its no-fee promises?
The company, which recently announced a quarterly loss (a real outlier in an otherwise profit-studded corporate history) renewed its vows to not charge for luggage fees. By not charging for the first or second bag, Southwest is really on its own in this market.
But it seems they’re starting to get jealous of the other airlines’ fee fetishes. CEO Gary Kelly hinted at future fees and optional add-ons:
“We would much prefer to explore opportunities to provide more service to customers and give them the choice to spend more money with Southwest Airlines,” he said. “Our frequent-flier program and Southwest.com both position us well to pursue that strategy.”
That’s still very vague. But it’s a disappointment to many who champion Southwest as the airline who won’t nickel-and-dime its customers.
But it shouldn’t really be a surprise. A few weeks ago, Southwest rolled out Early-Bird Check-in for a fee. (Once Southwest started suing the websites that checked you in automatically, you could see this fee coming.) But many are still saddened by Southwest’s evolution into a “normal” airline.
And if Joe Brancatelli’s recent analysis holds water, it may be a losing strategy for Southwest to pursue fees. As Joe notes, the airlines with the greatest revenue losses are the ones with the greatest reliance on bag fees and add-ons. Read the whole thing.
So is Southwest backing off on its “Fees don’t fly with us” spin? Will they be retracting ads like this one?
Upgraded: United’s Mileage Plus
Man bites dog! Airline reverses fee! United is eliminating the fees for booking Mileage Plus tickets within 21 days of travel. If you book today, you’ll still pay a fee — $100 for travel within six days was $100 and $75 for travel within seven to 20 days. But if you book July 30 or after, there will no longer be a last-minute booking fee for using your miles. It’s an interesting — and welcome — move, considering airlines aren’t known for cutting fees. Here’s hoping others follow suit.
Downgraded: American’s luggage fees
Speaking of fees, this is more or less the norm: American is raising its checked baggage fees by $5, both for the first piece (now $20) and the second ($30).
Downgraded: Open Skies
OpenSkies, the all-premium class British Airways subsidiary, is dropping its New York-JFK to Amsterdam route and is focusing entirely on flights from Paris to Newark and JFK. Just days after announcing that the airline was for sale. A shame.
Downgraded: Government architecture
Just when they started making customs and border crossing buildings a little more interesting, they go ahead and roll it all back: The 21-foot-high letters spelling “United States” were deemed a target, and thus a security risk. Words fail me.
Upgraded: Deals at Starwood hotels
Starwood is cutting rates by up to 50%, albeit off rack rates. “Limited time only,” they say, but no end date.
Upgraded: Headline writing
A Southwest Airlines flight made an emergency landing shortly after leaving Hartford, due to an electrical problem emanating from a coffeemaker, but you’ve gotta love the Times of London’s headline for the incident: “Southwest Airlines flight grounded by coffee aroma.”
Upgraded: Eco-designations for hotels
AAA is planning to note an “eco-friendly” designation in their TourBook travel guides for properties that participate in local, regional, or third-party eco-accreditation systems. The patchwork approach means that a hotel might make the cut in one state but not in another, based on regional variation.
Downgraded: Bangkok airport duty-free
If you’re in Bangkok, you might want to skip the duty-free shop. Customers have been falsely accused (better: framed) of shoplifting. And thanks to an apparently collusive agreement between the police, the duty free operator (King Power), and individual “translators,” all working in cahoots, travelers have been forced to pay up thousands of dollars in order to leave the country. “The British Embassy has also warned passengers at Bangkok Airport to take care not to move items around in the duty free shopping area before paying for them, as this could result in arrest and imprisonment.” Absurd! Read the whole convoluted story of the “zig zag scam” here.
British Airways is looking to sell its all-business class OpenSkies subsidiary, only a year after buying L’Avion and merging the two operations. The airline-in-an-airline is still operating, though, and there are some pretty sweet deals for premium class travel. If you’re flying between New York and Amsterdam or Paris anytime soon and looking for a relatively inexpensive upgrade, this could be the ticket. (~$1230 all-in roundtrip for a 140° cradle seat, or ~$2100 for a 180° flat bed.) But I wouldn’t book more than a month or two out.
Upgraded: Inflight internet overseas
Lufthansa is reportedly exploring ways of restarting the now-defunct Boeing Connexion satellite-powered inflight internet service. The receivers are already installed on many of their planes (a process which was undertaken at a hefty cost. Panasonic is the most likely provider of the services to the airline.
Downgraded: The St. Regis Monarch Beach
You may recall the St. Regis Monarch Beach in California as the site of controversy — Weeks after accepting a huge federal bailout, AIG executives spent nearly half a million smackers to host a swank affair at the resort. Now the resort itself has gone into receivership: Creditor Citigroup has foreclosed on the property, taking possession from the franchisees, Makar Properties. (Perhaps not surprising if reports of 15% occupancy rates are true.) But foreclosure doesn’t mean closure. The property remains open, albeit under new ownership.
Upgraded: Exotic inflight vermin
Paging Samuel L. Jackson! A passenger on a Southwest Airlines flight departing Phoenix was stung by a scorpion in flight. The creature fell out of luggage in the overhead bin, where numerous other scorpions were residing.
Downgraded: Budget Rent-a-Car’s ethics
Budget Rent-a-Car is still working with Trilegiant, the shady operators who send out “checks” you shouldn’t endorse. Signing the back commits you to an expensive membership in a “consumer club” with minimal benefits — all billed to the credit card you used when you rented a car from Budget. I reported on this back in January. I just received a similar solicitation this week, offering me a $10 check in exchange for a $219.98/year membership in “HealthSaver.” Shame on you, Budget, for pimping out the credit card data that your customers trusted you with.
Downgraded: Airline fees
Another week, another hike of airline fees. Continental, as part of its earnings report, is raising the cost of checked luggage by $5, bringing it to $20 for the first bag and $30 for the second. Also: Delta is adding a $5 in-person luggage fee for bags not checked in in advance online.
Upgraded: Room rate guarantees
In a continuing escalation of the war between the online travel agencies, Orbitz has added their Price Assurance guarantee to hotel reservations. If you book a room, and then someone else uses Orbitz to book the same hotel, with the same class of hotel room and on the same dates, and the price has dropped since you booked it, you get a refund. That’s a lot of if’s! This is not as robust as Yapta’s effort to track hotel room rates, but it’s an improvement, nonetheless.
Upgraded: Coffee on Southwest
Southwest Airlines is cranking out an improved brew on its flights. They are quick to remind customers that they’re still not charging a fee for the pleasure of arabica beans at 35,000 feet.
Downgraded: Coffee on Northwest
Back on the ground, a Northwest Airlines flight attendant charged with tending to an unaccompanied minor allegedly took an 8-year old to Starbucks. The flight attendant allegedly gave the girl a venti coffee loaded with cream and sugar, which made her sick. “I told her I was tired and she took me to Starbucks and said, ‘Go order a large coffee.’ She made me pay with my own money.” Why would anyone give an eight-year old, who is about to get into a plane, coffee? I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that an airline employee had slipped the kid a Benadryl, frankly, but giving an 8-year old a giant coffee makes no sense. Northwest says the story “doesn’t match their records.”
Upgraded: Stories of irate passengers
Every time I think the latest story of a passenger gone wild on an aircraft is the winner, there’s a new story that takes the crown. And I quote: “A British woman allegedly had an in-flight meal of prescription drugs, wine and liquid soap — before trying to bite the crew of a London-bound jetliner. Galina Rusanova punched and kicked flight attendants on the Chicago-based United Airlines flight after downing two or three bottles of wine, prescription drugs and liquid soap from the jet’s lavatory, prosecutors said.”
Upgraded: Nonstops to see Yakov Smirnoff
Upgraded: Airline monopolies
Branson, Missouri! America’s low-rent Vegas! No, gambling or smut, but you can get Soviet Union jokes o’plenty! But this Ozark mecca of entertainment has-beens finally has its own airport. It apparently bears the distinction of being America’s first privately-owned airport with commercial service, and it was built without federal transportation funds. The flipside of this savings to the taxpayer: The airport can negotiate exclusivity on routes. If airlines have exclusive contracts for service for a delimited timeframe, “That’s a major incentive to an airline because they know they won’t have to duke it out over fares with anyone.” In English, we call that monopoly.
Downgraded: United unplugs customer complaint phone line
The Indian call center that took United Airlines passenger compliments or complaints is being shut down, in favor of going entirely e-mail. “United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said the airline is able to respond better to customers who write, since they often include more detail, making it possible to provide a more specific response.” Not to mention that sending a form letter response is faster than having a real conversation. And I’m positive every disgruntled passenger appreciates the convenience of requiring them to take the time to write, rather than make a quick call from the road… Sure.
Upgraded: Transatlantic deals on Virgin Atlantic
Virgin Atlantic has a great sale going on right now over the pond, with economy fares as low as $453 round trip including taxes, and premium economy for as low as $675. Best part: No advance purchase. Buy today, leave today! But fares aren’t just last-minute fares, either. But no summer fares. You’ll find the cheapest prices from Feb 11, 2009 – Mar 22, 2009 or Oct 22, 2009 – Nov 30, 2009.
Downgraded: $0 airfares
I’ve always felt that companies should honor the prices they publish. And in an era of airlines that pay you to fly them, why wouldn’t a passenger think that a $0 airfare (plus taxes) was legit? Alas, tickets booked on Northwest at that last Wednesday fare aren’t being honored, unless the passengers are already mid-trip.
Upgraded: Inflight wi-fi live on Southwest
If you’re flying Southwest today (Wednesday, Feb. 11), check to see if you’re flying on aircraft #901. It’s the first plane equipped with inflight wi-fi. The plane is routed OAK-ONT-PHX-SAN-OAK-SNA-PHX-OAK-PHX. And while the service is being tested, the wi-fi is free.
Downgraded: Reading, Geography, Responsibility
A Thomas Cook travel agent mistakenly booked a passenger to San Juan, Puerto Rico, instead of San Jose, Costa Rica. SJU instead of SJO. Bad mistake. But didn’t the traveler bear any responsibility to check the tickets — or heck, figure this out at the departure airport?? I love her quote, though: “I looked around the airport, saw posters of Puerto Rico everywhere, and thought: ‘What am I going to do? Where is Puerto Rico? Where am I?’” Yes, “where is Puerto Rico.”
Headline: “Surprising number of companies cut travel spending.” Umm, “surprising”? Have USA Today’s editors been so insulated from the economic crisis that they’re shocked that travel spending is cut back?