I was on my way back to Chicago Midway from Dallas on Southwest Airlines Flight 1078 the other day when, about five minutes before boarding time, I heard the announcement no one wants to hear. A delay due to a mechanical, an issue the gate agent acknowledged was an inconvenience to everyone. Looking around at the people sitting on the floor and standing against the wall in the boarding area, no one seemed that concerned. Honestly, I found that rather surprising.
But what took place over the next half hour gave me some real insights into this airline’s customer service techniques and why they so often translate into people who want to fly aboard the Dallas-based carrier.
Being an experienced Road Warrior – actually, I hate that phrase come to think of it – I started walking down the hall right after the announcement to the next gate where a later Southwest flight was scheduled to leave. I told the agent my story and asked her to put my name on the standby list to get a jump on the 150 other people that I knew were about to show up.
“I can do that for you,” the lady said with a smile. “But I don’t think you’re going to need it.” She added me anyway and told me to “Hustle myself on back,” to the other gate so I wouldn’t miss the updates.
When I arrived back at my gate, the original airplane was gone, left, dispatched … but everyone was still standing around. About that time, maybe 15 minutes after the first warning, another Boeing was pulled up to the gate. Within 10 minutes, people were walking down the jetway for the flight. I’ve never seen people move so quickly. Of course, having extra aircraft around at your home base always helps.
As I found my seat in row five, I passed a young boy who was doing his best to avoid the water dripping out of the overhead vents.
The airplane had been baking out in the Dallas heat before it was called into action. Now that the air conditioning was turned on, it was working hard at squeezing out the extra water. It was just dropping it somewhere it shouldn’t … on passenger’s heads. The only solution was to get airborne into air with less water, but they were still loading people. Two flight attendants rushed to help, but within a minute or so, leaks sprouted in a half dozen different places as the ladies ran to grab paper towels to help mop up the mess.
“I’ve got it,” one flight attendant said. She ran to her bag and brought back some Band-Aids to hold the paper towels in place. It was too much watching these two women running around passing out paper towels and probably two dozen of us in the first few rows holding them up to the ceiling to catch the water and trying to attach Band-Aids.
Then it happened. The flight attendants began to laugh. I knew what would happen next, but I was wrong. Then a passenger in front of me started laughing … and another and another. Pretty soon we were yelling for more paper towels and laughing and completely forgetting why we should be upset.
It is pretty tough to be mad when you’re laughing at the same time.
The airplane left the gate and just before takeoff the flight attendants began picking up the wet towels just as some of the Band-Aids let go. More water! People broke out in more laughter. It was crazy. We even started talking to each other.
“I’m so sorry,” the flight attendant said. “Thank you everyone for being so patient,” she told us all in a way only a Southwest employee can pull off successfully. We all must have laughed and talked for another ten minutes on the climb out before the cabin settled down.
So what do you think?
Is it luck or does an astounding, friendly employee attitude have anything to do with the small losses posted by Southwest on Friday – one of the worst days for the airlines in 10 years – versus the two digit stock-price losses of carriers like United and American? Can Southwest change the variables of the transportation industry? Probably not.
But they sure help me enjoy my trip while they wrestle with that chaos. That’s worth quite a bit to me.