Friday, September 12, 2008

Why I Hate Southwest

(And TSA sucks too.)

Caitlin Kittredge asked for travel horror stories over on the League of Reluctant Adults, and since my favorite [cough] travel horror story is a tiny bit long, I decided to post it over here and just link it. Maybe she'll count it and maybe not, but hey, spreading the aggravation helps one's blood pressure, right?

Okay, so I was flying up to Reno about a year and a half ago and I got to LAX pretty much exactly two hours before my flight -- about 11:25am when my flight was at 1:25pm. This is standard for me and my husband and it's always been plenty of time before, even when the lines have been horrendous around holidays and such. This time the line to check baggage on the sidewalk with the Skycaps (which is what I usually do) was longer than I've ever seen it, seriously. Even about a year after 9/11, when people'd started flying again but the security bozos hadn't gotten their act together (so much as they ever did) and things were insane -- this was worse. I thought maybe the lines inside were shorter so I wandered in, hauling my suitcase and my laptop bag, but the lines inside were even worse, winding back and forth and around their little tape-and-stanchion maze and then way off to the other end of the terminal building and out the door, with the line heading some unknown distance in the direction of Terminal Two. OK, forget that. I go back outside and get in line.

For a while it was moving pretty well and I wasn't worried. I'd been in bad lines there at the Southwest terminal before but it'd always moved well and I've never had a problem. And whenever we were close to being late for our flight, the airline had sent employees down the security line (which comes after the Skycap line and is usually the really bad one, if either is) pulling out people whose planes are leaving soon, bringing them to the front of the line and making sure they made their flights. So I wasn't worried about it. Now, though, people in line were talking and I was hearing that they'd stopped doing that -- they don't pull people out of line anymore. Nor do they hold planes for a few minutes if a significant number of passengers are stuck in line. They just ignore the problem and let people miss their flights. Umm, okay, if that's true then it sucks.

After I'd been in line about an hour it slowed way down. I don't know what happened but it was really slow for about half an hour or so. And this was while people were leaving the line -- people who had bags small enough for carry-on were deciding not to check them after all and were going right to the Security line. Other people were either missing their planes while standing there on the sidewalk or just knew they were going to, so they got on their cell phones and switched their reservations to either later that afternoon or the next day, whatever was available, and then got out of line. So there were all these people getting out of line at intervals and it was still very slow.

Finally it was 1pm and my plane was leaving in twenty-five minutes and I realized that my chances of making it were slim to none. I was nearing the front of the Skycap line but I still had to go through TSA bags and then X-ray and it probably wasn't going to work. There were other flights to Reno so I wasn't too worried about having to go home or anything, but I was getting kind of annoyed. This guy ahead of me (who earlier on had been like six people ahead of me but everyone between us had left) was bouncing all over the place talking to people, and a few minutes after one he went inside and talked to some people there. He came back and said that there was a lady in line inside who'd gotten to the airport at TEN IN THE MORNING and was still there, waiting to check in. [headdesk] At least I knew I'd made the right choice in staying outside. :/

So I get close to the head of the Skycap line and learn that they weren't the ones who were lagging behind. They were working down the line, with guys coming down and asking for your boarding pass (with Southwest you can go online and print it out yourself up to 24 hours in advance) or your ID and what flight you were on, taking stuff back to their station and printing out the luggage tags (and boarding passes if needed) and then bringing them back, so there were people standing ten or fifteen feet back from the "head" of the Skycap line who had their luggage tags and all; they weren't the ones holding everything up. The line just kept going past the Skycaps to the TSA people -- that's where the hold-up was. :( For some reason they'd decided to open up Every Friggin' Bag and swab the inside. Usually they just do the handles and the zipper pulls and stuff and that's good enough. Not today. Lovely.

My plane took off while I was waiting for the TWO guys they had working the TSA tables to get to my suitcase.

So I went inside and up the escalator. The security line (the one to go through the metal detectors and all) was very short. There was a lady at the top of the escalator telling people which line to get in and I went where she sent me. That line was moving pretty well too, but a few minutes later she came down and sent a bunch of us off to this other line way off to the left where they had this weird booth-style thing which was apparently an explosives detector rather than (as well as?) a metal detector. So fine, whatever. We headed over and started getting ready to go through, taking off shoes and pulling out laptops and all. Then I got up there and the guy said, "No, leave your shoes on." Well, sorry, too late. I didn't think it was a big deal but apparently he did.

"Go ahead and put your shoes back on, ma'am."

"I'm sorry, I can't. I'll just put them through X-ray with my other stuff."

"You'll have to put them back on."

"I can't just put them back on while I'm standing here."

And I can't -- I'm too fat to just bend over while standing and put on sneaker-type shoes; I need to sit down to do it. I told the guy that if he's going to insist then I need a chair, figuring he'd shut up and just have me put my shoes through X-ray. No, instead he started asking some other guy back there to bring me a chair. Whatever. I was annoyed by the hold-up over something this ridiculous but I knew that arguing with these people doesn't accomplish anything.

Then a third guy came over and asked what was going on, and said I can just carry my shoes through the booth. Okay, fine, whatever, I can do that. He and the first guy both walked away. Then a minute later the first guy came back and told me to put my shoes in a bin to go through the X-ray machine, which was what I'd said in the first place. [eyeroll]

Somewhere along the line I told him that he should tell the lady who was sending people over to his line to tell folks not to take their shoes off. Over by the other lines there are all these signs that say you have to take your shoes off and we're used to doing it anyway. Now mind you, it's an incredibly stupid thing to do and accomplishes nothing and I hate having to, but I'm not going to get stroppy with the folks working the lines 'cause they don't make policy. But if they're going to change the procedure for this one line with the weird booth then they need to tell people in advance, like, before they take their shoes off. His response was that the lady working the line didn't work for them (they're TSA and she's with the airline) and they had no control over what she did. [eyeroll] Like they couldn't just talk to her and ask her to tell people not to take their shoes off?! I didn't say that but I was thinking it rather loudly. Jeez! Idiots.

Anyway, I went through the booth and got my stuff on the other side of X-ray and found a chair and put my shoes on and went to the gate my flight had left out of half an hour earlier, which was dead now 'cause everyone was gone. I told the lady I was caught up in the mess outside and was still on the sidewalk when the plane to Reno left and what should we do now? She sort of eyerolled and gave me a sideways smile and started tapping away at her keyboard. She knew exactly what was going on and told me that her second shift that day was going to be working downstairs. I commisserated and we both did the, "OMG it's insane down there!" thing while she worked out my new schedule. I got the impression she'd already done this a few times and that she'd probably do it a few more times before too long. So she said there's a plane leaving at 2pm for Oakland and then there'd be another plane from Oakland to Reno at 5:40. She printed out my boarding pass for the Oakland flight, then scribbled the number of the Reno flight on my little folder-thingy and I scooted 'cause the Oakland flight was close to leaving.

So I made it to Oakland, then found another Southwest desk where the agents weren't too busy. "Hi, I got caught up in the mess down at LAX and missed my flight to Reno but the Southwest lady down there sent me here and said there'd be a flight to Reno but I can't read her writing -- can you figure out what my flight number is and where I'm supposed to be?" She did the eyeroll-and-sideways-smile thing and said no problem. She looked at my info and tapped on her keyboard and said yes, it was all in here and it'd be fine. She printed me out a boarding pass for the flight to Reno and told me which gate it'd be at. I asked what'd happen with my baggage. She said it would've gone on the next flight to Reno (even if I hadn't) and that it'd probably be there waiting for me. Okay, coolness, thanks. We chatted a bit about what a zoo LAX was that day and how insane it was and then I went down to Gate 30 (which was about half a mile away, of course) and settled down to wait.

I got to Reno all right and up to this point it was cool. The delays hadn't been Southwest's fault -- they couldn't control TSA being a bigger pack of idiots than usual -- and everyone had been good about it.

Then at Reno I went to the Southwest baggage office with my claim check. I told them I'd gotten caught up in the mess down in LAX and I was supposed to've been here hours ago and the lady in Oakland had told me my baggage would probably have beaten me here. The Reno lady did some keyboard tapping and then said that the next direct flight from LAX wasn't getting in until 9:10, but that they might've put my bags on the same flights I'd taken and I should go check the carousel. Okay, fine, so I went to check and it wasn't there. I went back to the office, where there are two other women in line with the same problem, whom I assume took the same route I did. I got up to the front of the line and the Southwest lady said that my bag would probably be on the 9:10 flight and that I could come pick it up.

Ummm, right. I told her that my mother lived out on the edge of town and that I didn't think it was right to ask her to drive all the way back to the airport to get my bag. She said they had a delivery service and that I could call that evening and it would probably cost around $35. Um, that wasn't quite what I meant. :/

I said, "Look, I know it's not your fault if three thousand people decide to show up and it slows everything down. But it wasn't my fault either and I don't think it's fair that I have to pay to have my bag delivered. I was there two hours early and I was in line for two and a half hours. I know you have contracts with delivery services for when people get separated from their bags." She said they did but that in this case my bag had a "Late Bag Check" tag (I knew that because I'd seen it -- and I'd seen everyone else in line getting that same tag because the damn line was so slow we were all late by the time we got up to check-in) and that they had no way of knowing I'd gotten there two hours early.

Umm, right. So basically she was saying that she has no way of knowing I hadn't lied about when I got there, therefore it was my fault I missed my plane and my fault my bag was coming in late and I could go whistle for it.

What I thought was amazing was how every Southwest employee at LAX, including the ones a story up and an entire building away, knew exactly what an insane zoo it was downstairs, and the Southwest lady in Oakland had known exactly what I was talking about as soon as I mentioned it, but the three people working the Southwest baggage office in Reno had no clue that anything unusual had gone on that afternoon, despite the fact that they'd had three people in a row (and who knows how many others when I wasn't around) come in and tell them about it, but they still had "no way of knowing" that our missing our plane wasn't our own fault. [headdesk]

You'd think that they'd have been cool about this in the name of customer good will. There were a lot of travellers inconvenienced by this mess and I wouldn't be surprised if it caused at least a few people a lot more serious problems than it did me. I'm sure someone upstairs in corporate decided that since they technically weren't responsible, they could save a few bucks by stonewalling everyone who got separated from their luggage. It was a little thing but it would've been easy for them to take care of and it caused me (and the others I'm sure) a lot of inconvenience. It wasn't just this one lady being dim, either; there were two other customer service people in that office within arm's length of her while we were having these conversations, and nobody said, "Oh, no, we take care of that sort of thing!" It's pretty clear to me this was corporate policy, not individual stupidity.

My mom and I, and another friend who was visiting her, ended up hanging out near the airport until after 9pm, rather than driving back to her place, then back to the airport, then back to her place again. I'm still pissed off about how this was handled and I haven't flown Southwest since.



Charles Gramlich said...

Once things start to go downhill like this they usually just keep going. Sorry you had such a crummy experience.

Steve Malley said...

Ouch. Just... ouch.

Angie said...

Charles -- yeah, the first thing, with TSA deciding to examine every molecule of baggage but not bothering to add any staff, made everything else snowball. I wouldn't have had a problem with Southwest at all (and my opinion of TSA couldn't get any lower anyway) if it hadn't been for Southwest's all but calling me a liar to my face to save a few bucks. Problems happen, but what makes a person or corporation someone I either do or don't want to associate with is what they do about the problems when they occur. I don't want to associate with Southwest anymore.

Steve -- thanks. That was definitely a memorable day. :/


writtenwyrdd said...

TSA is getting their collective asses more together these days, but I can really believe that the shoe issue could happen at any time still.

The reasoning for shoes off is sound, and I won't go into it here. But it is really a hassle for travellers. That's why I fly wearing Crocs these days, lol.

Sorry you had such a crappy experience!

On my last flight I got patted down because my CPAP machine tested for precursor chemicals or explosives or something! They cannot take medical devices apart, so they swab them and there's a machine that reads the swab. And my brand new machine (I'd had it exactly 2 days) being a medical device had been exposed to something they objected most strongly to. They were very nice about patting me down and all, but they do pat you down in view of the other travellers, which I don't think is cool at all!

Angie said...

WW -- right, my husband has a CPAP and gets hassled with it about half the time. [sigh]

My understanding is that nobody's shoes, unless they're size thirteen six-inch platform combat boots or something, could hold enough explosive material to do any significant damage to the aircraft from inside the passenger cabin. Blow out a window or something, or threaten an individual? Sure, maybe. But nothing that could bring the plane down. If that's the case, then IMO it's just another hostage situation, which a determined hijacker could achieve just as well with a ballpoint pen held to a little kid's eye.

And what happens in the future if some bright person thinks to smuggle something contraband inside a rigged-up bra or jockstrap? They'd use that as an excuse to strip-search the lot of us, whether or not, again, the capacity involved was really significant.

If I'm mistaken about the amount which could be smuggled inside a shoe, I'd love to see a link to an analysis or something; I still hate taking my shoes off and then struggling to put them back, but if it were actually for something it'd be a tiny bit less aggravating. :P


writtenwyrdd said...

Angie, the amount of explosives that could harm other people in the vicinity and perhaps great damage to the plane is certainly possible to sandwich in a shoe sole. I'm doubtful it could take the plane down, but that's not really the important point: Any shoe bomb would still be a successful act of terrorism. And there is a lot of bottled oxygen which could blow if there were a fire, I think.

Still doesn't mean the screening has to be so crazymaking. So awful to have had to endure something that catastrophically stupid and bloody inconvenient!

writtenwyrdd said...

Oh, btw, they will never strip search people without what basically amounts to probable cause, and they will do it in private not in public unless they want a major lawsuit and negative publicity...At least, not so long as we have a Constitution! Because I can tell you from prior experience in law enforcement that people stuff things in their bras and shorts all the time!