The Debacle, Meltdown, Crisis: What I learned from the Southwest Airline Troubles December 2022
As I type this reflection I am waiting on hold to cancel flights on Southwest Airlines. Even though I was directed to the website, this is, apparently, something I cannot do on the website.
I was supposed to go to visit my 86-year-old mother this Christmas week. (I know, this sounds like a real emotional issue. Given her age it is.) Unless you have been living under a rock these past few days, you know this has not been a good time for Southwest.
My experiences with Southwest have generally been universally positive. I have always found that my contacts with Southwest Airlines to be positive. When I have had a problem, even difficult ones (like the time an assistant ordered a ticket using my religious name, which is not my legal name) I had the experience that Southwest Airlines was genuinely trying to solve my problem, something that caused Southwest Airlines to stand out compared to my experiences with other airlines.
It was part of why I joined Southwest Rapid Rewards program twenty year ago. It is the reason I was even willing at times to pay a little more to travel with Southwest Airlines. Their rewards program was simple. The fee structure was easy to understand, as I was not “nickle and dimed” like other airlines. Flight attendants worked hard to help me cram my sometimes overpacked carry on into the overhead bin.
So I went into this trip no different than I had entered into other trips. While I was aware of the bad weather, I was not concerned because things looked fine for my flights. I expected what I had almost always received. As good of a flight experience as possible, even though I am not particularly fond of travel.
The flying model
By now, there have been enough articles written to describe the issues I won’t spend too much time on it here. Basically, the model Southwest uses for its flights is what makes it popular. You can fly nonstop to a lot of places, without always having to return to a “hub” first. The “point to point” system used by Southwest is generally less expensive to operate, and so fares are also lower. And when there are no disruptions, it works well.
But, take a major weather event, and the “hub and spoke” airlines, who direct their flights to central hubs are able to get the planes back to the hubs and recover faster. Given the “point to point” model, the planes are scattered over many more places and harder to move to recover.
What is difficult for me to imagine is that the technology that Southwest uses (or as we learned doesn’t use) to contact crew is non-existent. Apart from calling or paging them in the airport, Southwest Airlines has no way to contact its crew, and so even in instances where the crew was indeed in the airport, I am told the airline had no way to contact them. Given the number of pages I heard when I became stranded at Midway Airport, I have no trouble believing this.
Being unable to contact and locate crew, Southwest Airlines struggled to get things right. Essentially, they had to fly crew (once they located them) back to places where they could get flights back on track. As we saw, this took days.
But what is a Christian to do?
It may seem odd for a Dominican friar to say, but I have been working harder and harder to ask myself this question: Where was God in the midst of all of this? And second, I have tried to work harder to be grateful, focusing on the blessings I have, and not on what I do not have or what is frustrating. And so I tried to do this as I put up with the frustrations with Southwest Airlines.
What did I do? Be Grateful
Ok, the first thing I tried to do was to identify those things for which I should be grateful. I was using reward miles in my flight on Southwest Airlines. It could be worse. I thought of those people flying Southwest Airlines because of their low fares. People who did not fly very often, perhaps, taking a flight to visit (as I was) my mother.
Unlike so many in the airport, I was fortunate to be in Chicago, because my province has communities in Chicago. I had a warm bed, meals, prayer, and more. There were many whose flight on Southwest Airlines took them to Chicago, where they knew no one, had no money for a hotel (and did not know to ask), and had been in the airport for days.
I was also able to afford lunch. I knew I had a job. I knew that I had a community of friars who cared for me. I knew my mother was safe. I knew that the friends I would not see would understand. I knew that in more ways than I care to acknowledge, I was tremendously blessed even if I could not see it.
Remember the people working at the gate were not responsible
In addition to those who for emotional or financial reasons faced hardships, there were the Southwest Airlines employees. Often they were treated badly. I felt very sorry for them. They were yelled at for not being able to immediately solve the problem, one which they did not create. I witnessed too many people who treated them badly because they believed the person in front of them, representing all of Southwest Airlines were doing this specifically to get back at them.
I have always found that when you are kind, you are more likely to be treated well. When I was on a previous visit to my mother, having flown a non-Southwest flight which got cancelled due to weather, there was a man in front of me who was screaming at the ticket counter because the agent could not get him booked on a non-existent flight to his destination. (He was trying to fly to an area that required a connection at an airport where the flight had already been cancelled.)
And no matter how many times the agent explained there was simply no way that evening to get him where he needed to go, it made no difference. He became angrier and angrier, ultimately conceding and leaving. I told the agent I was sorry she had to go through all that.
And so, when my flight was ultimately cancelled, I waited in line for two hours (and I went the minute I learned it was cancelled to the line). I was pretty pessimistic as I heard person after person saying the next Southwest Airlines flight for them (we were all going to the same destination) would be two or three days away.
When I finally was in front of the Southwest Airlines agent, I said I was sorry for this fiasco, and hoped people where treating her kindly. I got a flight the next day. (Now, I was a single passenger. And, the flight (and the same flight for the next two days) was cancelled. But I have to think she looked a little harder to find me a flight.
I asked, “Where is God?”
I know that having Southwest Airlines flights cancelled does not come close to approaching the suffering and difficulties faced by other people. A loved one did not die. A child did not struggle with a terminal illness. I am not living in Ukraine. I could go on. But, asking the question, even if there is no answer to it, “Where is God?” is a very helpful one.
But the reminder of asking, “Where is God?” is one that I have worked to apply as I am chaplain in a Lasallian school, where “Let us remember we are in the holy presence of God” is stated over and over every day. So I tried to remember that in this experience with Southwest Airlines, asking “Where is God?” and remembering that I am always in his presence helped.
And by asking “Where is God?” I found myself focused on God, and not on my own circumstances. And, I was able to see more clearly how others were worse off than I was. I overheard many sad tales waiting in the line and at the gate. I read about more sadness in the news. By focusing on God, I could remember to pray for others.
Sometimes we choose penance, sometimes it chooses us
I had a choice when I learned by Southwest Airlines flight had been cancelled. I had a choice when I realized I would not be going to see my mother, my brother and my friends. As Viktor Frankl reminds us in his classic, Man’s Search for Meaning, while I may not have a choice about everything that happens to me, I always have a choice concerning what I do about what happens to me.
I asked God to use my little suffering for some greater good. To apply my sacrifice, and the grace that came from it to someone who really needed it. Like perhaps my cousin’s husband who just received a kidney and liver donation. Or the single mother who has a lot more to worry about than a missed Southwest Airlines flight or flights. Or the people in Ukraine. Or the homeless.
I asked God to use my tiny suffering for those who are really suffering. I asked him to remind the people who face real hardships to make his presence clear to them in the midst of their suffering. And to remind me to keep all things in perspective. I am blessed.
Don’t get me wrong; I am sad and disappointed
This all sounds well and good, but I am dealing with a lot of sadness and disappointment. And they are real. And I am not trying to pretend they do not exist. These have not been the best days for me. First and foremost, since I do not really know how many more visits I have to my mother, I do not like to miss even one.
I needed a break. I am tired. I need the refreshment a change of scenery can provide. I needed to rest. I am trying to do so here in Saint Louis, but it is not the same. I am trying to rest, but I find too many reminders of all of the things that I need to do. And, depending on how Southwest Airlines responds to my requests for reimbursement for other expenses, I may find myself revisiting all of this.
So my saga with Southwest Airlines does not compare with the difficulties of others. And at the end of the day, I am grateful to be reminded that it remains the case, and will always be the case, that God loves me, that Jesus died for my sins, and in all things, I am never alone.