Lewis: Regulation is not the solution to Southwest’s unraveling
My children traveled to Vail for Christmas, my son from Seattle, my daughter from Boston. Both were scheduled to return to their homes on Tuesday on Southwest flights out of Denver. Given the news reports, we checked flight status Monday night relieved that both flights were scheduled to depart on time. At 2 a.m., Southwest informed us via email that my son’s flight to Seattle was canceled. A link to rebook took you to the generic change/cancel your flight web page.
I tried calling Southwest, but that was a fool’s errand. The line was busy for hours. When I finally got through, the automated attendant said the wait time was an hour. I left the phone connected but the call eventually just dropped.
I checked the Southwest website only to learn that the earliest return flight was on Jan. 2! I think the worst delay I had ever experienced might have been a day but a week — ridiculous. Luckily, I found a United flight for my son leaving the next day, and booked it. It cost a fortune but was still cheaper than the cost of him staying for another week.
My daughter’s flight still showed “on time” so we drove to Denver, dropped her off and she made her way to the gate. Her Boston flight showed “on time” until one minute before boarding should have started. Then this crazy announcement came from the gate agent: “We have pilots but no crew. We are flying the plane and your luggage to Boston, but we are not taking passengers.” You can’t make this stuff up. Some brilliant person thought it would be a good idea to strand a planeload of people in Denver without any luggage.
With the “fool me once” adage in my head, I had already booked her a flight on United leaving at 6 p.m. the next day. I tried checking the Southwest website to see if any other flights were available, but the online system informed me that her flight was in the past and couldn’t be changed!
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Over the past 40 years, I have flown a great deal (almost 4 million miles) and seen almost every type of problem, but I have never seen a cluster like this.
The blame appears to come down to outdated scheduling software, an operating model that does not recover easily from weather disruptions, and inadequate staffing. The reports may or may not be accurate but, because I am not the CEO, I don’t really care why it happened.
The secretary of transportation has postured that, as a result of this problem, the airline industry might need more regulation. As upset as I am with Southwest, I sincerely hope that is not the outcome. Even though airlines are far from perfect, our government is not more qualified than airlines to run airlines. Increased regulation will increase costs to consumers while not necessarily improving service.
Rather than imposing more regulation, what if we just let consumers provide the impetus for Southwest to remedy all of the issues that led to this catastrophic meltdown? The simple fact is that, while we can all play armchair quarterback and opine over what went wrong and what Southwest should do, fixing it is not our problem nor is it the government’s.
When companies offer poor-quality products or substandard service, consumers quickly learn to take their business elsewhere. The market, when operating properly, should be self-regulating based on consumers selecting their choice of products and services. Outside of regulating things like safety, companies should be free to fail as well as succeed.
I won’t be flying Southwest anytime soon, regardless of the price. To regain my business, the airline will need to both provide adequate reimbursement for this event and prove that it has fixed its issues. Until then, Southwest is off my list for air travel. Assuming many people feel the same way, this should do more to motivate Southwest to fix its problems than any new regulations.
Lastly, as of this column, my daughter’s luggage is still MIA. She is not sure if she will ever get it back.
Mark Lewis, a Colorado native, had a long career in technology, including serving as the CEO of several tech companies. He retired from technology in 2020 and is now writing thriller novels. Mark and his wife, Lisa, and their two Australian Shepherds — Kismet and Cowboy, reside in Edwards.