Over the weekend I felt like I had been in the middle of a business school leadership and management case study on what NOT to do. Trapped at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport for hours on Saturday, the unfolding situation was at first annoying. Then it became a worry that the situation might spin out of control.
When I arrived at the airport that morning, I could tell something was different. While waiting to check luggage, the people in front of me reported that their planes had been cancelled the night before due to “Air Traffic Control [ATC] problems.”
My flight was delayed, but still I thought that yesterday’s problem was surely fixed. There were no messages from Southwest about chronic delays, no apparent problems on the weather sites, and no news stories of ATC problems. In other words, I had no reason to think this would be anything other than a “normal” travel day.
A half hour later than our scheduled departure, the Southwest flight headed for Portland, Maine, arrived at our gate and a half hour later we started to board. After more than two thirds of the passengers had been seated, we were suddenly told, without explanation, that the flight was terminated.
What ensued might be one of the most disturbing set of events I have seen at an airport—and I used to fly 200,000 miles a year. As boarding Gate A-15 started to disgorge my fellow passengers, we realized that there would be only one person on the customer service desk to help as many as 200 passengers rebook their flights or be reunited with their luggage. For an hour and a half, we stood—still without instructions over the PA system. Three times I asked an airline official what I should do if I just wanted to retrieve my luggage and go home. Three times I was told that the only thing I could do was to wait in line.
Soon, another group of travelers, headed for Albany, was directed to leave from our gate, on our plane. Two plane loads of people were shoulder to shoulder near Gate A-15, which was at the end of the terminal—in an alarming, socially un-distanced crush. Many had masks that drooped below their noses. As the flight to Albany readied to leave, two pilots arrived. The Albany passengers erupted in applause. The Portland passengers, with nearly one hundred people still waiting—standing now for almost two hours—had no choice but to stay in line.
Then it happened. As the Albany travelers started to move, the only person on the desk assigned to us Portland-bound customers stopped working. She told only those standing next to her that her handbag—with her credit cards and her iPad—had been stolen. She apparently would not resume her work until it was found. Soon police officers arrived, but no one was assigned to help our group of exhausted passengers, including many elderly people and some in wheelchairs. If it had been any passengers other than Mainers, there might have been a fist fight. It was agreed that the customer representative deserved to have all the help she needed in finding her handbag, but there were two Southwest officials standing near the desk. They should have been trained and ready to stand in for her.
By now some people in line were getting upset, and others were drinking beer. A klatch of them had taken off their masks and were making annoying jokes. The rise of anxiety could be felt among the many who were stranded, including people missing their first family reunion in thirty years, a woman trying to get home to her sick 88-year-old mother and another who had an urgent law enforcement assignment the next day.
I finally left before being helped, deciding instead to return to the airport the next day to pick up my bag. FYI, I was unsuccessful. My bag that day was with (literally) 5,000 others in the basement of BWI. It will be sent to Portland they told me, but first they had to locate it. (I couldn’t cancel my return flight, though, because my bags were “still en route.” Wait time for canceling the flight? Five hours on the phone, and no help from the Southwest website.)
Southwest, that built its reputation on customer service and purports to have a bond with its customers, let their staff and their travelers down. Having cancelled thousands of flights over several days, it was not until Sunday night that Southwest finally apologized to their staff—that’s right, the ones who “reported for duty.”
There were obviously no contingency plans for any predictable scenarios. Recently, Southwest Airlines Pilot’s Association sued Southwest for adopting vaccine mandates. Headquartered in Dallas, Texas, the airline was always bound to be on the front line of the COVID wars, and the conflict is unlikely to be easily resolved.
But Southwest’s biggest mistake was to blame everyone but themselves for the debacle. No other airline came even remotely close this weekend to the massive cancellations that occurred at Southwest—so weather or ATC emergencies were not the problem. The airline, and its union, have poo-pooed the notion of pilot shortages and “sick outs,” but everyone at the airport believed them to be the cause. In fact, one airport official told me that a pilot “no show” was the reason for the cancellation of my flight.
From a leadership perspective, COVID-19 requires transparency and empathy rather than rounds of the blame game. It also requires building within any organization a common purpose, and a common rationale for the necessity of getting vaccinated. To do that, it is critical to have impactful outreach and easier forms of communication. Management also must have the backs of the people who keep the airline running, especially in these difficult times.
Blaming others has eroded the trust that was the hallmark of the Southwest brand. Last weekend may or may not have inflicted enduring damage on the company’s reputation. But no one who was there will ever forget it.
USA Today reported yesterday that one dedicated Southwest flyer, similarly trapped at an airport, didn’t “buy” the company’s excuses, especially the one denying that it was a labor action related to vaccine mandates. Apparently, the Twitter sphere agreed. Said the traveler: “I just would rather them be more transparent and just say, ‘Hey, this is what is going on.’”
With best wishes,
PS: Again, the ordinary workers at Southwest pulled off a miracle. Today, I went to another Washington area airport and the agent kindly checked on my bag’s status. It has already arrived in Portland, she said. I hope Southwest’s top executives know that this fine woman, who has been working fourteen-hour days, is the reason I often fly this airline. The future of Southwest depends on employees like her. When all this has settled down, they should give her a couple of days off, along with a thank-you bonus and a robust apology. Isn’t that what LUV is all about?