20 February 2010

Does anyone else hate Southwest Airlines?

Southwest Airline's recent public relations debacle inspired me to dust off this little tyrade I wrote last summer after a particularly enjoyable trip with them...

I’m sorry to come on so strong, but there’s no way around it: Southwest Airlines sucks. They really suck. They take conventions which work perfectly well, tried and tested procedures, and discard them for chaos. I do not like chaos. I particularly do not like chaos when I am trying to get from a point A to a point B, and at the end of the line are my retired parents patiently waiting to pick me up from the airport. So, I write this as a cautionary tale, and so you can learn from my mistake. My mistake of flying Southwest Airlines.

My 4:50pm flight had been delayed until 5:15pm. This not a big difference, though, so I tried to ignore the sense of mild doom that was growing like a fungus in the back of my brain. I tried not to be a cynic, even though I had just been treated like a bomb-carrying criminal by airport security, then surrounded by wiggling munchkins on the shuttle to my terminal. I remained calm and cheerful in the face of a $4 bottle of water (most likely from someone’s tap in Mississippi) and an $8 plastic-wrapped hunk of dry bread with a thin slice of “cheese” and a generous wad of iceberg lettuce oozing out the end, making it look like it had been in someone’s back pocket for hours.

But I am slowly learning not to trust these airlines, not to have my heart broken anymore by promises of certain takeoff and arrival times that never seem to happen, of enough legroom or smiling flight attendants or space in the overhead compartment for my modestly sized duffel bag. And so I was irritated, but not surprised, to watch 5:15pm come and go with nary a sign of our plane.

When it finally appeared at 5:50, I predicted that we would not, most likely, make our departure time of 4:50pm. I’m not clairvoyant, but I get lucky like that sometimes. And I just hate being late. Especially when I have paid a hefty sum to an airline carrier to take me to my destination at a certain time. The situation was made more charming by the dearth of seating in the waiting area; there might have been enough chairs for one third of the plane’s passengers, at best.

And do you know why there was no seating to speak of in this waiting area? Southwest does this hip, new, revolutionary thing with their seat assignments on the plane: they don’t assign any. I know, this sounds like a bad idea, right? It’s worse than that. Because instead of fully herding us like cattle to our final sitting place, we are left to spin the roulette wheel ourselves. But it’s not a fair game of chance–some people get first pick. And those people are never concerned about those further down the line.

So here’s what happens: every boarding pass has a boarding group printed on it (“A”, “B”, or “C”), and a number to designate your place in line (1, 2, 3, etc. You know what numbers are.) When the announcer says “go”, you are supposed to line up with your group in order, relying entirely on the honor system to trust that no one is skipping line or entire boarding groups. Then you get to pick your very own seat on the plane, which sucks no matter where it is, because it's a plane.

This works in places like Germany, where people regularly do the right thing without supervision (train tickets are purchased from a machine and never checked by a guard. Can you imagine that here?). We don’t do things that way for the Chosen Country. We are all very, very important and busy people who want to get to our equally important destinations regardless of anyone else’s needs-–in fact, it is a legal right, I think-– which means it’s OK to elbow your way through the crowd and cut in front of the 95-year-old in the wheelchair so you can have the best seat. You deserve it. This is the system Southwest has fostered.

Large swaths of floor space are dedicated to this clusterfuck known as boarding a Southwest plane. There are at least four rows of seats that have been taken out to accommodate this “system”. And those in the know start milling about in their general areas a good hour before the process begins. Or, if they are in groups “B” or “C”, they stand almost where they belong, not quite aggressively enough to warrant complaints of foul play, but not far enough out of the way to allow group “A” people to get to their spots.

And no one is talking to each other, because there is this latent sense of hostility and competition for seats (which all suck), so no one really knows where they’re supposed to be. And the announcements are totally garbled, like all gate announcements, because they all bleed together, so very few people even know what group has been called. I suspect that no one knows, but some people look confident no matter what stupid thing they are doing.

If you are not in the know, like me, you stand around dumbfounded, not aggressive enough to push your way up to your place in line, but slowly becoming more aware of, and more incensed by, the inevitability of getting total crap for seatmates. I was traveling with my husband, with whom I normally like to sit on a plane (he always has gum and lifts my luggage above my head for me), but by the time we were fortunate enough to walk onto the plane and scanned the seats before us, everyone had cleverly arranged themselves with spaces in between (person-seat-person-aisle; seat-person-seat-aisle), making our togetherness a challenge.

We did finally spot a woman all by herself and squeezed in to the two adjoining seats next to her; they were the only two left, so I’m pretty sure the other couples and families behind us were quarantined from each other. I think the gimmick behind this Total Chaos Theory of Seating™ is that you get more choice, but honestly, I feel like I have more choice when I select my specific seat, next to my partner, on the computer when I am purchasing the tickets. And a chair in the waiting area is nice, too.

Rather than using a drink cart to serve the complimentary beverages and Smurf-sized bag of peanuts, the flight attendants don pad and paper to take our drink order, then return much later with little round trays that hold a couple rows' worth of drinks at a time. They go to a section of the plane in teams, take a few orders, scurry to the back to prepare drinks, then negotiate turbulence while balancing their little waitress-like trays to bring that section their orders, go to the next little section of the plane, etc. It is very inefficient.

Another person comes around with a basket full of the snacks, which is much more efficient, so we sit, eagerly fondling our peanut bags in anxious anticipation of beverages to make said peanuts palatable. I suppose it keeps the flight-waitress-attendants busy longer, which might be a plus for them if they don’t like being bored or looking at clear aisles that allow people to get to the bathroom, but I couldn’t quite see the use in it. Again, Southwest scrapped the pre-approved system (drink cart which holds drinks stable and delivers them with the fewest number of trips and in less time) for their new, corrected system. Hip! Edgey!

In case you think that I am being unfair to Southwest, I will tell you that the landing was very smooth.