Southwest Airlines has taken a lot of heat for the way it has handled the unexpected grounding of its Boeing 737 MAX fleet. Many customers are angry and argue that Southwest has acted very much out of character. But are such charges really fair?
With an unprecedented number of flight cancellations, many Southwest customers have found themselves stranded. To make matters worse, Southwest has not canceled or consolidated flights as proactively as American or United have. This has led to customer complaints like this:
Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz told USA Today:
The duration is one major factor of what makes this situation highly unusual —especially for our customers. We know it’s been frustrating for our customers, but we have taken several steps to try to minimize the inconvenience and frustration.
One step has been to waive the fare difference charged when customers change their tickets. Southwest already does not charge a change fee, but typically will charge any difference in fare. Refunds have also been offered.
But that has not been the primary problem. Instead, the issue is Southwest’s sometimes-limited schedules and lack of partners. When an American flight is canceled, passengers can be quickly rebooked on United or Delta. When a Southwest flight is canceled, passengers can only be re-booked on a Southwest flight.
That has really hurt many customers. Vacations have been ruined. Family reunions have been canceled. Once-in-a-lifetime trips have had to been cut short. Some of the stories are downright depressing.
In Defense Of Southwest
But while I have great empathy for those who have been negatively affected, I find myself in the rare position of defending Southwest.
When you buy a Southwest ticket, you should know what you are getting yourself into. And I don’t just mean the open seating, free baggage, and folksy flight attendants. Southwest is in a world of its own. It does not partner or interline with other airlines. That means, when something goes wrong, your only option is another Southwest flight.
While that comes across as tough love when a customer is told to either cut their trip short or stay an extra few days, it is what it is. It’s part of the Southwest package.
Customers have also complained about a general lack of empathy from Southwest and a refusal to provide compensation for trips that have been ruined. Here, though, we again must understand that the grounding of the 737 MAX fleet constituted a force majeure event, beyond the control of Southwest. While compensation is always appreciated, I’m not sure why Southwest should be on the hook for a government-mandated grounding of key aircraft in its fleet.
I also understand why Southwest did not more proactively cancel flights. These aircraft, and the pilots who fly them, are sitting idle. The moment the ban is lifted, service can resume. Why cancel weeks in advance when there existed a fair chance (based upon past FAA practice) that the ban might be quickly lifted?
The Mechanics Wild Card
But any analysis of this topic must also include a discussion of Southwest’s recent labor woes. As I covered last month, Southwest and its mechanics have been engaged in open warfare against one another.
Southwest has canceled more than 5,600 flights since February for non-weather reasons. It was only today, April 5th, that Southwest and its mechanics have reached a new agreement. Mechanics will immediately receive a 20% pay increase plus retroactive pay. More details here.
Many of the cancellations have come not due to the 737 MAX grounding, but due to the inability of the two sides to reach a deal (it only took six years and a lawsuit…).
Whether you are pro-union or pro-Southwest, the airline certainly cannot blame many of its cancellations on outside actors. These cancellations preceded the 737 MAX issue, but have now continued simultaneously.
Again, I feel very bad for Southwest customers whose trips have been ruined. But I also do not think this represents a crippling indictment against Southwest. Instead, it represents growing pains and a reminder that Southwest is in a league of its own. Often that’s a good thing, but perhaps not in this case…