Long known as a ‘cattle car’ airline that’s got cheap fares for flights in the American West, Southwest Airlines has recently acquired AirTran–one of the East’s major cheap airlines. I’ll be interested to see how this merger progresses and how it affects customer service on both airlines’ routes.
This review encompasses only old Southwest Airlines, sans AirTran. I will update this review sometime next year or the year after, when the changes have propagated across both airlines.
Southwest Airlines is a classic cattle car airline that flies within the continental United States. Up until recently, Southwest focused on the Western states, but they’ve purchased AirTran and so now have service all over the East as well.
Cattle car means no preassigned seats and few frills. There’s no First or Business Class on Southwest. Don’t expect blankets or pillows either. On the other hand, Southwest tends to run cheap, and they don’t pretend to be something they’re not. I like them for that.
Making Reservations and Online Services
Southwest doesn’t work with most of the major online multi-airline reservation services like Orbitz or Travelocity. To get a flight on Southwest you’ve got to go directly to their website or call them on the phone. And their home page is heavily overcrowded, which can make it tough to figure out exactly where to go for information.
I’m pretty impressed with Southwest’s Customers with Disabilities web pages. They’re a great deal more comprehensive than most airlines’ online disability info, including pages for people with peanut allergies, cognitive disabilities, medication needs, and other hidden disabilities that airlines usually forget about or ignore.
Another useful page is the Seniors page–Southwest offers discounts for passengers 65 and older.
But of course, there’s always more they could do. Such as create a means for people with low or no vision to use the web site, especially to make reservations and purchase tickets. I couldn’t find anything like that in the course of several searches. On the other hand, they do have a TTY number (800) 533-1305 for passengers with low hearing who’d like to make reservations over the phone. Speaking of which, the web site’s search function works okay, but isn’t great by any means.
Despite the no-frills Southwest boarding and seating experience, Southwest follows the law and provides wheelchair service for passengers who need it. You can ask for a wheelchair either at the curb or at the main check-in desk, and it takes about 15 minutes for it to show up. I usually arrive at the airport 90 minutes before my flight time when I fly Southwest, and that’s enough. (Except at LAX, but that’s a whole ‘nother post.)
I’ve had no problems with Southwest’s wheelchair services and behavior towards me as a PwD. But they have been having problems in this area in the past year. Southwest staffers have insulted and mistreated passengers in wheelchairs repeatedly. Frankly, they need to pull their act together when it comes to disabled passengers and create a coherent and consistent policy that works for their customers.
Southwest’s Wacky Boarding Procedures
Thank the merciful heavens, Southwest does permit people with medical needs to pre-board. But you must must MUST tell them in advance that you need to pre-board and get yourself a pre-boarding card along with your boarding pass. Sometimes they’ll let you pre-board without it on your word that you need extra time. But sometimes they won’t. The only way to guarantee pre-boarding is to get that card.
Without the magic pre-board card, you’re doomed to be part of Southwest’s arcane and often-changing boarding procedure. On your boarding pass you get a letter and a number. The gate agent calls out a letter and a set of numbers. Then she calls out another letter and set of numbers. If you’re part of one of the letter-and-number groups, you go line up at a series of big weird-looking posts, finding the post that’s closest to your number. Then you’ve kind of got to ask all the other people around you what their number is, and shuffle into place in numerical order. Then the first group called boards. The second group called shuffles over to the other side of the posts and the gate agent calls the next group, who get to line up then wait.
Oh how I wish I were making this up.
Of course it may be different by the time you fly Southwest. They change it on a regular basis, just to keep semi-regular travelers on their toes apparently.
On the Plane
Once you’re on one of Southwest’s vast fleets of Boeing-737s, the in-flight experience feels about the same as any coach-class flight. In my opinion, it’s actually a little bit more comfortable than duct-tape class on a big-carrier wide-body jet flight.
Some flight attendants do stand-up comedy within the framework of the usual in-flight announcements.
Because most Southwest flights are short, they don’t do much in the way of food service. On most Southwest flights, you get a drink and a couple of miniature bags of snacks. I like the peanuts, but Southwest does recognize the issue of peanut allergies and will actually change their snack offerings for the whole plane if they know they’ve got a passenger on board who has peanut dust allergies. I think that’s a pretty cool deal, because it provides over-and-above accommodation for a customer with a hidden disability without unduly burdening the rest of the passengers. (Everyone still gets snack bags–they’re just not peanuts.)
Southwest is implementing wi-fi on their fleet. Right now they’re offering $5 access, but the price will no doubt increase after the implementation is finished. Frankly, I’m not likely to bother paying $5-$12 for an hour’s worth of Internet access–I’ll use free hot spots at the airports, thankyouverymuch.
The bathrooms on Southwest’s planes are no better and no worse than any other airline’s. I find it’s a little bit easier to get to a bathroom than on some other airlines: because there’s no First Class or Business Class on Southwest, the front-of-cabin bathrooms are available to all customers. I like that.
After the Flight
My experience of Southwest is that they’re reasonably organized when it comes to meeting passengers with wheelchairs at the gate of an arriving flight. I’ve never had to sit and wait for a chair, even if I’m one of the first passengers off the plane. I know that this organization is a combination of airline and airport staff competencies.
On the other hand, I’ve had mixed experiences and my fair share of dashing from one baggage carousel to another to find my luggage, because Southwest sometimes seems to have trouble figuring out which flight’s luggage is going to what carousel. Again–I know that this isn’t all Southwest’s fault–the airports bear some responsibility as well.
Southwest has never yet lost any of my bags. (Insert the sound of me knocking wood.)
Beyond that, when I stupidly left my Kindle in the seat pocket of a plane in San Diego, they found it and got it back to me. I had to pay the FedEx freight for it. But I got it back! That was a fabulous surprise and made me super-happy. The Kindle had been a gift from my family, and I’m attached to it.
Any airline that can retrieve and return lost items that have street value gets a serious thumbs-up from me.
The Bottom Line
TWP Grade: C+
Between the problems and inconsistencies Southwest has with disabled customers and the amazing boarding process that forces passengers to stand in line for no particularly good reason, I think that Southwest could do better for travelers with pain. But they’re good with luggage and the in-flight experience is as good or better than that of the fancier airlines.
Yes, I’ll keep flying them. They’re cheap and they’re convenient and they fly lots of places I want to go.