The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Flight

And how Southwest made it right.


It was the Wednesday evening before Labor Day and my wife’s grandfather had just passed away. The funeral had been scheduled for Friday morning, just 36-hours and five states away. While my wife was on the phone with her family, I was practicing the fine art of airline ninjutsu trying to find flights for the next morning that didn’t equal the cost a second mortgage.

Surprisingly, Southwest had plenty of flights the next day at reasonable prices for any day, let alone the very last minute. I purchased tickets and checked us in at the same time and then went on to book a car, hotel, and everything else that comes with last minute travel details.

Our initial flights were about as smooth as travel can be… except for our three-hour layover in Nashville.


The Terrible Incident

Our return flight was leaving from Reagan National in Washington DC on the Saturday before Labor Day. It was scheduled for 2 p.m. and would get us as far as Atlanta. We had a 45-minute layover before boarding our final flight home. At least that was the plan.

I should have known something was wrong when I realized that our return flight was actually on AirTran, operated by Southwest. Every flight I’ve ever had with AirTran has been an experience I’d rather soon forger. I thought it was a strange acquisition on Southwest’s part from a brand standpoint — it made total sense from a flight standpoint. But I had not flown AirTran since the acquisition so I was hoping things had changed.

Our flight started off being delayed a few minutes. Nothing concerning as these things happen all the time. I wasn’t yet worried about the very short layover in Atlanta since I knew that Southwest padded their arrival time so that they are almost never late — I assumed the practice carried into their operation of AirTran as well.

We boarded the flight and found our seats in the first row of “normal” seats just behind AirTran’s small First Class section. A few minutes after people finished boarding, the flight attendants began their count of the passengers on board. The first count wasn’t right, so they counted again. And then again. Then the gate agent boarded the plane with a flight manifest and began her own count. Being rather close to the front allowed us to overhear more of what was going on than we probably should have. The gate agent told the flight attendant in charge of the count that there was a passenger on the plane that shouldn’t be. The attendant and the gate agent moved through the plane and found the man in question and escorted him off the plane. A few minutes later she returned to retrieve the man’s luggage and, in her frustration, explained to the flight attendant what had happened while standing right in front of us.

Apparently someone at the ticketing area of the airport had printed the man a boarding pass for our AirTran flight even though he was supposed to be on a US Air flight. I guess he wasn’t paying very close attention and boarded what he thought was supposed to be his flight. The gate agent called this a “security breach” and said she was going to have to make a call before she would give him his luggage back. Remember, we were flying out of Washington DC on a major holiday weekend. The last thing we wanted to hear was “security breach” and people on planes that weren’t supposed to be there.

The passenger across the aisle from me said that would be our flight’s one incident and we should hopefully be good to go from there. Boy was he wrong.


The Horrible Incident

A few minutes later we began the taxi process only to be immediately halted — incident number two. The pilot came on the intercom and explained that the tower reported a “security incident” grounding all DC air traffic. Given our extra passenger and flying out of Reagan on a Labor Day weekend, the combination of events was less than comforting. While sitting on the runway I was trying to find information about the ground-stop, but at that point Twitter and CNN only had news of the airspace being closed. There weren’t any details as to why. It wasn’t until the next day that the news reported the cause for the ground-stop to be a private plane wandering into restricted airspace. A few minutes later the pilot came back on and announced we had been cleared to resume our place in line for takeoff.

At this point my wife and I, along with just about every other passenger on the flight, were very nervous about missing connecting flights in ATL. Our window before the final flight was only 45-minutes and these various delays were not helping at all. The mood in the cabin was tense. The flight crew did a nice job trying to reassure us that we would be able to make connections or get on another flight if necessary. It would be about an hour before the next problem emerged.


The No Good Incident

Our flight had been rather smooth until the pilot came back on the intercom. He explained that while we were only about 90-miles outside of Atlanta, there was a ground-stop in place due to weather and the tower was anticipating about a 30-minute hold. Before the groans about missed connections could even emerge, the pilot dropped the other shoe. He explained that we didn’t have enough fuel to wait out a 30-minute hold so we would be landing at the Greenville-Spartanburg regional airport in South Carolina — incident number three. At this point resignation set in as our connecting flight was well beyond reach.

As we were on approach to our new destination, the man across the aisle from me woke up and asked one of the flight attendants (the one who was stationed in the back of the plane but was up near us for some reason) if he heard correctly that we were landing in Greenville. She assured him we were on time and landing in Atlanta as scheduled, despite what the pilot had communicated just a few moments before while the man was asleep. Once on the ground she came back and said that we were, in fact, in Greenville and that it was just as surprising to her as it was to us. Landing in Greenville wouldn’t be the end of our troubles, there was still one more incident to go.


The Very Bad Incident

When we landed the pilot explained that Greenville-Spartanburg was a Southwest airport and would be able to fuel us and get us on our way. He also explained that while AirTran is owned by Southwest, the crew on the ground wasn’t expecting us and they would have to negotiate our servicing.

We sat on the ground for over an hour and in that time not a single plane arrived or departed from the desolate Greenville-Spartanburg regional airport. I watched online as the plane we were supposed to be on left Atlanta without us. At this point, everyone was looking online for flight options to their final destinations. The mood was pretty grim.

While the pilot was waiting for paperwork and fueling to commence, the front of plane flight crew did a great job taking care of us with snacks and drinks and assurance that we would be taken care of once we got to Atlanta.

About an hour or so after landing in South Carolina we were fueled and the pilot had taken care of the paperwork required. More importantly, the ground-stop in Atlanta was finally cleared and we were preparing to take off again.


How Southwest Made it Right

A short 45-minutes later and we were on approach to Atlanta. The mood on the plane, once on the ground, was tense. Everyone, myself included, were very concerned about connecting flights and the ability to get to our destinations. To Southwest / AirTran’s credit, there were gate agents at the end of the walkway ready to go when we arrived. They had boarding passes ready for some of the connecting flights and, for us and the majority of the plane that were continuing onto Orlando, they were checking us in directly. I don’t know if it was luck of the draw or our place in line, but my wife and I were checked into the next Orlando flight in first class. All that was left to do was go purchase dinner and wait the hour or so until our flight began boarding.

When the gate agent came out to begin the boarding process, he realized that the microphone system wasn’t working and was forced to yell so we could all hear him. Given all that had already happened that day, this didn’t create much confidence in the final leg of the journey. However, boarding was smooth and, despite another missing passenger who was actually supposed to be on our flight, everything was normal. The final flight to Orlando was quick and landed 30-minutes early, which was a nice way to end the very long day. All told, we landed three-hours later than we were supposed to, but given the circumstances for our travel, it was really nice to just be home.

After telling this somewhat unbelievable story to friends and family, they encouraged me to send it into Southwest. Any one of these things by themselves would be a normal occurrence, but all of them combined make for something that the airline should be aware of. So I wrote out the whole story, much of what you are currently reading, and sent it off since it was far too many characters for their online email system.

A week later I received a call from a Southwest customer care agent. We chatted for a few minutes and he explained that he had received many letters about that fateful flight. He explained that given all of the circumstances, there wasn’t much that could be done differently. He referred to our trip as a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad flight” and sent us Southwest credit for our hassle.

I’m sharing this story here for the same reason that I shared it with Southwest. Any of these incidents by themselves would be understandable. But when they are all combined it created an experience that was something right out of a movie. Despite the hassle and frustration, Southwest made it right and took care of their customers. That is highly commendable and not the experience I’m used to with major corporations today.