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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Southwest superfans got burned in the meltdown. They’re still loyal.

‘I have faith,’ one canceled traveler said. ‘Hopefully my faith is well-placed.’

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)
7 min

Brian Mason describes himself as a “huge fan” of Southwest Airlines: the customer service, the famed sense of humor, the family-friendliness.

“And I’ve exclusively had good experiences with them,” he said Friday, “until last week.” The streak ended the final week of December, when the airline canceled the Dec. 28 flight from Denver to Anaheim, Calif., for his family of five — and thus, their trip to Disneyland, because no other flights were available, and weather was too bad to drive.

Even worse, Southwest called Mason’s cellphone several times in the middle of the night with automated messages. As the district attorney for Colorado’s 17th Judicial District outside Denver, Mason assumed he was being notified of a major crime each time.

“But no, it’s Southwest Airlines calling a third time to tell me that my flights have been canceled,” he said.

Southwest offers 25,000 points to passengers stranded by meltdown

The family was caught in an epic meltdown that saw Southwest cancel more than 15,000 flights over the prime Christmas travel season, leaving many travelers stranded, others without their luggage for weeks and others with holiday get-togethers and getaways ruined. The mess started with a major storm, but other airlines soon recovered, while Southwest’s problems — due in part to outdated scheduling technology — intensified.

On social media, even true devotees shared their fury and frustration: “I really am just struggling to continue being a southwest fanboy,” one person tweeted.

It was a departure for an airline that thrives on public adoration. The company’s logo includes a heart — which adorns the belly of its planes — and its stock symbol is “LUV.” Employees are known for entertaining passengers with games at the gate, telling jokes during safety announcements or presenting travelers with crowns made of snack bags.

Since the late-December chaos, tempers have cooled as the airline reunited passengers with lost bags, refunded fares, reimbursed expenses and offered 25,000 points to affected passengers (the equivalent of about $300) toward new flights.

Despite his disappointment over the canceled trip, Mason said he would “absolutely” fly Southwest again — and may book tickets with them when the family, which includes three young kids, takes their rescheduled Disneyland trip.

“I have faith,” he said. “Hopefully my faith is well-placed.”

For Kevin Lewis, a reporter for WJLA in the D.C. area and a Southwest traveler since childhood, the failure was sad to watch. His flight from Midway in Chicago, where he spent the holiday with family, to Baltimore was canceled, but he only realized it when he checked the app. He couldn’t make changes online, and he only got a busy tone by phone for hours.

Lewis, 34, ultimately made it home 36 hours later thanks to snagging a flight in person at the airport and said his loyalty would not be swayed. It’s a fandom that started in childhood, when, he recalls, there was a gate themed like Wrigley Field.

“It just always felt like you weren’t getting high class, but it was just, like, nice people,” he said. “They would tell jokes on the plane.” He grew to appreciate the policies, too: The first two checked bags are free, there’s no charge to change a flight and you can get a refund in the form of a flight credit if a new flight costs less than the original.

“It was sad to see them just like fall to their knees,” he said. “And also just shocking to see seemingly how easily it came to its knees.”

Frustrated Southwest passengers are still waiting for bags, days after chaos began

He doesn’t have another flight scheduled on Southwest, but he said it’s only a matter of time.

“I feel like I’m not going to let this one bad situation ruin two-plus decades of great customer service,” he said. “But at the same time, I really do hope that they change — it sounds like their technology for sure — so that this doesn’t happen again.”

Grant Goodman, 23, describes himself as “a pretty rabid Southwest defender” who has an airline credit card and even a shirt from its merchandise website. He didn’t have any holiday travel plans to ruin, but he watched the horror stories unfold on social media. Still, he wore his shirt out on Christmas Eve.

An actor who splits time between Atlanta, Houston and Los Angeles, Goodman said he expects Southwest to earn travelers’ trust back.

“They really seem to be the only airline that seems to care about people,” he said.

Kristin Marcum of Austin had a front-seat view to the chaos: Two members of her fiance’s family had separate flights canceled, so he had to drive from Austin to Dallas to pick up a stranded relative whose final leg of a flight got the ax.

As a public relations professional and longtime fan of Southwest, Marcum said she had some empathy for the company. But then the family went to the movies and saw two Southwest ads that struck her as being in poor taste, given the circumstances. She wrote a post on her company’s site about what she saw as a communications error.

“It really just put some salt in the wound when I saw the ad,” she said. Marcum said she thinks that the airline’s conciliatory moves have been smart, but that an apology from the CEO should have come sooner than Dec. 27, and that it should have focused more on the effects on travelers.

Despite her criticism, Marcum said, she has already booked seven flights on Southwest for spring.

“Clearly Southwest can come back from this with many people if I’m any indication,” she said. “I think what that shows is that it’s so important to have goodwill built up when a crisis hits.”

Southwest Airlines faces lawsuit after mass cancellations

Crisis communication and reputation management expert Eric Rose, a partner at EKA, said Southwest has done some things right: Leaders apologized with empathy, pledged refunds and reimbursement, and acknowledged the concerns of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

“But this is a crisis that is not over, because they haven’t solved the problem,” he said.

Rose said the airline still needed to make outreach to customers like him — not just people whose travels were disrupted — to address the issue and explain what’s being done to fix the problem.

“They need to be a lot more specific about the failure and very specific about what they’re doing to assure people that it’s won’t happen again,” he said.

In a public update on Jan. 5, CEO Bob Jordan said the airline was reviewing the issues that caused the disruption and had taken “immediate actions to mitigate the risk of this ever happening again” — without going into details.

In an earlier update, on Dec. 31, he said one of the priorities in a five-year plan established in 2021 was to “modernize the operation,” with a focus on better recovering from irregular operations.

“I know that we have work to do to restore your confidence in Southwest,” Jordan said. “You have our word that we will commit to the necessary resources to quickly examine and bolster our strategy for continuous improvement in our processes, our systems, and more.”

While many travelers told The Washington Post that their loyalty remained intact, some remained wary. Elisha Thompson, 39, of Las Vegas got her checked bag back on Jan. 5 after last seeing it Dec. 23, when her flight to Memphis was delayed.

She said she was still expecting reimbursement for clothes and toiletries she had to buy, but had already received a voucher for future travel. In an email, Thompson said Southwest had been her favorite airline because of its customer service, affordable fares and the “great personalities” of employees.

“I can’t say that I will never fly them again,” she said. “I will use the voucher, but I definitely will not check bags. I may purchase a flight with them in the future, but it is highly unlikely.”