This is the one of the few times that I have ever written a complaint letter to a company; however, I cannot remain silent after experiencing Southwest’s total lapse in service with respect to our family’s first vacation with our grandson. I am so upset with Southwest’s mishandling of the flights both to and from Mexico that your company will need to do more than simply apologize if its wishes to maintain our family’s business in the future.
To put things in perspective, I am a 64 year-old retired aviation and finance lawyer who has flown extensively for business and pleasure for the past 40 years. I have accumulated a million or more flight miles on various airlines and am a Gold Premier Member with United Airlines. My wife and I possess both United and Southwest credit cards. Besides flying Southwest myself, I also have encouraged my family to be loyal Southwest customers since your company entered the Denver market.
Over 6 months ago, I planned a family vacation in Cabo San Lucas from October 27 to November 3, 2019. This vacation was the first time that my wife (Connie), daughter (Stephanie) and son-in-law (Esterlin aka Sterling) would be flying with our 9-month-old grandson. In addition, Sterling is a former professional basketball player who is 6’9” tall, has a muscular frame and very long legs and, as a result, needs extra legroom and cannot fit into regular seats on Southwest flights. In light of these issues, I very carefully purchased Southwest tickets with direct flights to and from Denver and Los Cabos and purchased Early Bird seating on both sets of flights. I also prepaid for two hotel suites in Cabo San Lucas and a private car to pick up and return my family to the Los Cabos airport before we left Colorado.
When I booked the reservations, I was not aware that Sterling would need wrist surgery before our vacation to Mexico. However, he needed to have the surgery and was wearing a bandage on his left arm during the Southwest flights.
FLIGHT FROM DENVER TO LOS CABOS
Our family arrived at the Denver airport at different times on October 27th due to the winter storm in Denver that day. Connie and I did not have any problems with checking our luggage or boarding the airplane. However, after checking their luggage at the Southwest area in the lobby and having tags placed on our grandson’s car seat and stroller in the boarding area, the Southwest supervisor informed our daughter and son-in-law that (even though Stephanie and Sterling possessed claim checks for the checked luggage) they could not board the airplane to Los Cabos because Southwest could not find these items in its luggage tracking system.
This problem was caused by an error in Southwest’s computer system; however, the supervisor steadfastly insisted that passengers could not board an international flight without their checked-in luggage and refused to allow my Sterling, Stephanie or my grandson to join Connie and me on the flight! Instead, she instructed Sterling and Stephanie that they needed to take my grandson, the car seat, and the stroller to the baggage area to retrieve the checked-in luggage, travel home in the snowstorm, and return to the airport in the continuing snowstorm by 3:30 in the morning for a 7-1/2 hour connecting flight (instead of a 2-1/2 hour direct flight) to Los Cabos.
When Sterling and Stephanie arrived at the baggage area, they were informed that it would take Southwest approximately 1 hour to locate their bags. When Southwest failed to locate the bags in that time frame, the baggage attendant recommended that Sterling and Stephanie give Southwest an additional hour to find their bags. Southwest also failed to find the missing bags during the second hour whereupon the baggage attendant informed Sterling and Stephanie that it could take an additional 4 to 5 hours to locate the bags and recommended that they take our grandson home and pick up the missing bags before their flight the next day.
Stephanie and Sterling woke up in the middle of the night to catch their new red-eye flight to Los Cabos; however, when they arrived at the baggage claim area, they were informed that Southwest still could not find the missing bags. Somehow, Southwest elected to ignore the “absolute prohibition” against passengers traveling without their checked-in luggage on international flights and permitted our Sterling, Stephanie and our grandson to board the aircraft for the replacement flight to Los Cabos. This change in policy was fortunate because Southwest has failed to find the lost luggage in its computer system to this day!
[NOTES: After the October 27th debacle, I called Southwest’s international flight department and was informed that the boarding agent’s actions were inappropriate since Sterling and Stephanie possessed claim tickets for the lost luggage and Southwest was responsible for not being able to find those suitcases in its computer system. In addition, the person who spoke with me was astonished that the boarding supervisor would be so lacking in compassion for parents traveling with an infant.
It is my belief that the real motivation for the boarding supervisor refusal to permit Sterling, Stephanie and our grandson to board the aircraft to Los Cabos is that the boarding process was running late and the supervisor did not want to jeopardize any chance to push back from the gate on time. Southwest’s misplaced emphasis on timely departures at the cost of concern for its passengers will be underscored in the subsequent section of this email dealing with the return flight from Mexico.]
Due to the Southwest boarding agent’s actions with respect to the original flight on October 27th, my daughter, son-in-law, and grandson missed nearly 1/3 of our vacation to Cabo San Lucas, spent hours trying to entertain a 9 month old baby in the Denver airport, were forced to pay for an unplanned lunch while they waited for Southwest’s unsuccessful efforts to locate their missing bags, made 3 trips instead of 1 trip to and from the Denver airport in a snowstorm, and spent 7-1/2 hours instead of 2-1/2 changing flights and sitting with an infant on an airplane. In addition, I lost approximately $300 in wasted transportation and lodging expenditures in Cabo San Lucas.
FLIGHT FROM LOS CABOS TO DENVER
Normally, this is where the tale of woe would end; however, the flight from Denver to Los Cabos on October 27thwas only the prelude to the disastrous Southwest return flight from Los Cabos to Denver on November 3rd.
In an effort to make sure that nothing could go wrong with the return flight, Connie, Sterling, Stephanie and my grandson arrived at the Los Cabos airport more than 3 hours before the scheduled departure time. Everything went smoothly with check-in; however, after being told by an initial flight attendant that Sterling could sit in the exit row despite the bandage on his left arm, a second attendant insisted that he could not occupy an exit row seat after everyone had boarded the aircraft. At 6’9’ tall and over 300 lbs., my son-in-law only fits in the exit row and bulkhead seats. This is the reason that he always buys Early Bird seating.
The flight from Los Cabos to Denver was running late and the Southwest flight attendants were very concerned that the flight would not leave on time. Every 2 minutes, a countdown was being conducted over the intercom and passengers were being told to find a seat so the aircraft could push back from the gate. In the midst of this self-induced frenzy, one of the flight attendants was trying to get a passenger to exchange his seat for Sterling’s position in the emergency row.
A man occupying a window seat in the bulkhead agreed to move to Sterling’s exit row seat; however, as soon as he left, an overweight woman in the middle seat took the man’s window seat and left Sterling to try to squeeze in between the woman and a very large man in the aisle seat. Sterling tried but could not fit into the middle seat. Although the flight attendants saw the woman take the window seat without any authorization, they did not ask her to return to the middle seat.
When Sterling stood up in the aisle while the flight attendant unsuccessfully tried to obtain a second volunteer to exchange seats with him, one man in the second row began repeatedly taunting him to “Just sit down”. Another man, presumably agitated by the continuing messages over the loudspeaker, repeatedly urged the flight attendant at least twice to “Get security” so the plane could leave on time. After enduring this abuse for 10 minutes (without any help from the flight attendants), Sterling told the man in second row that he needed to shut up. At this point, Stephanie (with my grandson under her arm) walked to the front of the aircraft to tell the abusive men that they needed to calm down while Sterling moved back in the aircraft to try to squeeze into a regular aisle seat that had been occupied by Connie (who could fit into the middle bulkhead seat).
At this point, a security officer boarded the aircraft and informed Sterling that he was abusive and needed to leave the aircraft. No action was taken against the men who had been taunting him in front of the entire planeload of passengers.
The end result was Connie, Sterling, Stephanie and my grandson all left the aircraft and were rebooked on an indirect flight through Los Angeles which, once again, required my family to travel with an infant for 7-1/2 hours (instead of the 2-1/2 hour direct flight that I had booked months earlier) and arrive home in an exhausted state around midnight. The passengers on the original flight (including the 2 passengers who had embarrassed Sterling) also did not emerge unscathed because the departure of their flight was delayed for over an hour while my family’s luggage was removed from the aircraft.
One good note is that the Southwest boarding agent in Los Cabos (named Laura) was extremely empathetic and helpful to my family. She could not believe that people would not help a family with a baby and was surprised that the flight attendants did not offer any kind of economic incentive or take any other kind of extraordinary action to motivate a passenger to exchange seats with Sterling. Laura tried making amends to my family by giving them adjoining bulkhead seats on the flights to and from Los Angeles and $200 flight vouchers for their inconvenience.
SUMMARY OF EVENTS AND REQUEST FOR COMPENSATION
Southwest made a series of mistakes with respect to both the flights to and from Los Cabos.
I cannot think of any reason for Southwest to prohibit Sterling, Stephanie and my grandson from joining Connie and me on the original flight to Los Cabos except for the boarding supervisor’s concern that the flight would not push back on time. If no exceptions could be made to the ironclad rule that a passenger cannot fly on an international flight when his bags can’t be located in Southwest’s computer system, then Southwest never should have allow Sterling, Stephanie, and my grandson to travel to Los Cabos at all because Southwest never located the missing bags. Southwest’s mistake ruined the first 2 days of our vacation, exhausted my family, and cost my children and me a considerable amount of money.
The problems with the return flight was caused by a disagreement among the flight attendants regarding Sterling’s ability to sit in the exit row with a bandage on his arm, the inability of the flight attendants to maintain control over the passengers who were taunting and embarrassing Sterling, and the failure of the flights attendants to prevent the other passenger from taking the bulkhead seat that had been vacated for Sterling (or use a relatively small economic incentive to find him an alternative bulkhead seat). Once again, I have to think that the repeated messages over the intercom and Southwest’s primary concern about leaving on time contributed to the stressful atmosphere and the willingness of passengers to extend some basic courtesy to my family.
In light of the problems with both flights, I believe that Southwest should reimburse me for the full amount of our family’s tickets to and from Los Cabos. In addition, in recognition of the frustration. embarrassment and exhaustion caused by Southwest’s actions, I believe that Southwest also should provide each member of our family with a free round-trip ticket to anywhere in the United States or Mexico. Finally, Southwest should provide Sterling with permanent special assistance status so he always can fly in an exit row or bulkhead seat.
[FINAL THOUGHTS: I think that Southwest also should be aware that Sterling was one of the few, if not the only, black person on the return flight from Los Cabos and that he is somewhat reluctant to speak to strangers since English is not his native language and he speaks with a Venezuelan accent. I and the other members of our family have seen him endure a never-ending series of unsolicited comments and, sometimes, rude remarks from absolute strangers without ever losing his self-control or sense of humor. I can’t imagine how embarrassed and frustrated he must have been to tell the man in the second row to shut up.
During the five years that I have known Sterling, I have developed a much-enhanced appreciation for the special issues that black and Latino men and women face in America. I don’t usually think in racial terms but I have to wonder whether the people on the aircraft or some of the Southwest personnel would have acted differently if Sterling were simply a tall white person. I also cannot understand why: (a) the boarding supervisor refused to allow Sterling, Stephanie and my grandson board the flight to Los Cabos; (b) the flight attendant on the return flight to Denver called security to remove Sterling from the aircraft when he had moved to the middle of the plane to try sitting in Connie’s seat; or (c) the men who were taunting Sterling or unjustifiably calling for security were not instructed to desist and/or removed from the aircraft.
I think that Southwest should be aware that both Connie and Stephanie have told me that the repeated Southwest announcements over the intercom and the unruly behavior of the passengers who were taunting Sterling or calling for security gave the situation a mob-like quality. I personally have travelled on many flights where people have needed to change seats and their fellow passengers (including members of my family) have been eager to help them. I also have been on flights where people encountered difficulties in settling into their seats and I have never heard people taunting their fellow passengers or, even worse, yelling for security because a passenger was standing in the aisle while a flight attendant was trying to find him a seat. The situation on the return flight from Los Cabos is a sad commentary on modern American society. It also emphasizes the need for Southwest’s personnel to stop making announcements that agitate its passengers and to take control of unruly situations before they get out of hand.
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