Where Understanding People Can Take You

I recently went to Philadelphia for a high school sports event.

(Actually, it was Camden, NJ, but who would want to admit going there?)

My daughter was on the school rowing team and her boat went to Nationals. It’s a big deal for the rowers, but a big headache for us parents. We needed to book hotel rooms, figure out how to get the boats up there from Florida, arrange for tents, chairs, etc. And of course, we had to get there ourselves. At least I knew that part would be fairly painless.

You see, I’d made this trek before. This was my daughter’s third trip to Nationals, so we had the process down, and the flights involved one of my favorite companies, Southwest Airlines.


Many, many years ago I fell in love with Southwest Airlines. I was all of 18 and traveled often between Houston and New Orleans. For some unremembered reason, my schedule put me on flights between 5pm and 8pm, which were known as the Happy Hour flights.

During those hours, the flight attendants, who were all attractive young ladies in hot pants, would run down the aisle taking drink orders and bringing everybody two of whatever they ordered. At the time, the drinking age was 18 and the drinks on the flight were free, so I was a big fan of this particular program!

To say the flights were a party on wings would be a stretch, but it sure made them more enjoyable!

Today, I love Southwest for a different reason: They’re thinking about me.

Now, I don’t really think a person at Southwest has Rodney Johnson on his mind, but they are thinking about their clients.

They don’t charge me for bags.

They don’t hassle me about seating.

They’re genuinely pleasant at the counter, the gate, and on the flight.

All of this was thrown into stark relief on this recent trip, because I had to change my already-booked flights at the last minute, to accommodate a side trip to Washington, DC. The best option for leaving the Capitol City was U.S. Airways, a company that provided a painful counterfactual for my Southwest experiences.

U.S. Airways charges $25 per checked bag. So if you happen to travel with luggage that you don’t feel like hoisting over your head and cramming into the small overhead bin (and that’s if you can find any space up there), then the cost of flying with them is higher than whatever fare you were quoted.

Then there is the problem of seating. Someone obviously told the airlines that window and aisle seats are preferred. I wish I could find him and kick him squarely in his breeches. Thanks to him, airlines like U.S. Airways charge a preferred price for a better seat.

If you actually want to sit in a middle seat, near the bathroom, no problem. For the rest of us, who would prefer a window or aisle seat somewhere else, it’s another $25 to $50 charge.

Then there is the matter of actually getting onto the plane…

If you fly U.S. Airways all the time, then you’re one of the lucky Dividend Milers who get preferred status. You get on right after first class. I understand that. It’s client loyalty. But then there are all those other status levels, like gold and silver, or maybe those who hold a U.S. Airways credit card. Or possibly those who are left-handed and walk with a limp.

I’m not sure who decided that there should be 39 different status groups that get onboard ahead of everybody else, but I think they were a bit overzealous. At this point, it would be simpler to identify the non-status-holders like me, and simply say “Wait here, we need to load everyone else first.”

If an airline is trying to make me feel welcome, this isn’t the way to do it.

Being nickel-and-dimed for doing the things that air travelers do, like bringing luggage and wanting to sit in an aisle seat, is a good way to really annoy me.

Giving status to everyone on the planet so that I must board last and worry about finding overhead space for the bag they made me carry on because they wanted to rip me $25 to check it, just makes it worse.

Oh, but it doesn’t end there. It might not seem possible, but U.S. Airways has found a way to prove they are client unfriendly, even before you set foot in the airport, thereby, yet again, distinguishing themselves from Southwest Airlines.

It’s all about the change fee.

As I mentioned, I changed my plans after I had booked my Southwest flights to and from Philadelphia. I called Southwest to figure out how to cancel just one leg of our trip. The agent on the phone took care of it in a matter of seconds, and told me that, while the tickets were non-refundable (I’m cheap), the full unused credit would be available for use for up to one year. Great.

U.S. Airways, on the other hand, takes a different approach. If you want to cancel a flight, you’re penalized between $150 and $300 per passenger. That means my $119 fare that I saved for another day on Southwest would have been more than eaten up by change fees on U.S. Airways.

I’m not sure what part of the words “customer service” U.S. Airways and other airlines don’t understand, but I sure am glad at least one carrier has it right.



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