Monday, May 9, 2016

When Southwest Airlines Queueing System Fails

About a year ago, I wrote another blog post about Southwest Airlines and some of their frustrating business practices. As I mentioned in the post, "Southwest Airlines is a great example of one of those love-hate relationships that just make you crazy." This morning found me on the hate end of the spectrum once again.

As you might have seen from my Twitter feed, I'm gearing up for about two weeks of travel. My trip includes about five cities and some cross country travel. Normally, for cross-country travel, I've found that I prefer JetBlue as their planes provide a human amount of leg room, but unfortunately, several of the cities that I need to visit aren't served by JetBlue. What's more, to book a trip like this on United or American would have been difficult -- and priced out at a couple thousand dollars, more than double the cost of Southwest. While I usually try to avoid Southwest Airlines for cross country flights, this trip was pretty much impossible without choosing them.

In fact, my trip was so complicated that our existing corporate travel software couldn't book it. I have so many legs on this trip, I needed to contact our travel agent and have them book it. And this is what kicked off my latest frustration with Southwest Airlines.

It turns out that, unbeknownst to me, the travel agent didn't put my birth date into one of the reservations. This is required information for you to obtain a boarding pass. Now, in a world of reserved seats, leaving out information like this is not the biggest problem -- you most likely have a specific seat booked. However, Southwest Airlines with it's "check-in 24 hours before your flight to obtain your place in line for boarding", errors and delays with check-ins can be a significantly greater problem. In my case, it turned into errors trying to check-in on both the Southwest App and their web site, followed by a call to their customer service (and a long hold time), all the while "critical" seconds were ticking away, moving me farther and farther back in the check in line. And at the end of the experience, what did I get? Essentially, the equivalent of Southwest Airlines saying, "Bummer man, I hope you enjoy the rest of your trip."

Set Up For Customer Service Failure: The Southwest Queuing System
In the old days, Southwest Airlines numbered boarding line made sense. You'd arrive at the airport, check-in, and they'd give you a little plastic boarding tag. If you wanted a low A boarding number, you showed up to the airport early. It also meant that usually the first people on the plane were those skittish travelers who arrived at the airport two hours early for a domestic flight. Of course, it sucked for business because if you arrived at the airport at the last minute, you were trying to cram your carry-on in around Aunt Susie and Uncle Pete's haphazardly placed bags in the overhead. It sucked so bad that Southwest created their Business Select that automatically gave you an A1-15 boarding pass -- for a premium "business" price.

With the advent of online check-ins, Southwest set up a system where you could check in and get your number 24 hours in advance of your flight. At times, I've wondered why it seems like many of the same "traveling on vacation" people are ahead of me in the line. I suspect that the same thing that made Aunt Susie and Uncle Pete show up two hours in advance for that flight is the same thing that has them sitting around by the computer on the weekend waiting for the time to tick over -- for them, it's a big vacation, but for me it's the Sunday before a business trip.

The other irony is that several people have built apps to automatically check you into your Southwest flight, although Southwest has apparently been very aggressive at sending cease and desist orders to stop web sites that enabled you to automatically check you in. Why? Southwest charges $15 to let you automatically check-in as soon as you can. You can still find some coding tools to automate your browser - let's be honest, scripting an activity like this to take place isn't that hard - but Southwest is bound and determined to monetize this part of the transaction.

So let's talk about all the failure points that happened during my transaction and how Southwest could have improved the process.

1. Travel agent books the flight. Provides incomplete information. Shouldn't the system validate the information and determine if all information was provided? Shouldn't it prevent saving a record if essential information is missing? This is like web application 101.

2. Once the flight was booked (a couple of weeks ago), there was no follow up. Nowhere in the flight information does it indicate that incomplete information was provided. Considering that I'm signed up on their RapidRewards program and my flights were linked to my RapidRewards account, you'd think that they could have sent an automated email saying "complete your flight information in order to streamline your check-in process." As it turns out, there was other information missing from my reservation as well. Why can't you see this information in the Southwest App?

3. Checking In. When I tried to check in, the error message in the app said, "Parameter value is missing. Error 400500134 (Flvu9-BDQFi1L9WKitm9Vw-API)". In hindsight, I can kind of put together something about what the error means, but at the time it was unclear what the problem was. Even better was when I tried to check in through the Southwest Airlines web site. Here's the screen:
Gotta love "Reference Code: 999999999".

So yes, these error messages suck. But what sucks worse is that they potentially leave you with the impression that there is some larger system error at play and to simply keep trying. Keep trying while the sand ticks out of the hour glass and more and more people check in ahead of you.

4. I call Southwest. Automated phone navigation system. Long wait times. These are things I would expect. The Southwest customer service agent was friendly and helpful. She updated my information and checked me in. When all is said and done, I wound up with a number in the upper B boarding.

But here's the problem. Through no fault of mine, I've had a frustrating customer experience with you, Southwest Airlines, driven entirely by your "check-in for your place in line" business practice. You have created a situation where you're managing customer experience on a resource that potentially diminishes in value as time goes on. It's similar to the customer service issue with Stubhub -- if they cancel a transaction, that ticket you ordered is possibly gone and your opportunity may be gone. Whatever number I could have had if your check-in process had worked correctly is gone.
Now, as a customer service organization and a business, what are you going to do about that? As an example, Stubhub waived their transaction fees for our transaction. While that might not have helped if the tickets had been particularly limited, it was at least a gesture on their part to make things better within the scope of things that they could do. Stubhub did good customer service to address a frustrating customer experience.

What did Southwest Airlines do? Essentially said, "bummer man". Did they offer a number from the high A-list usually blocked out for business travel? No. Did they offer me some sort of credit (essentially meaningless on a business fare)? No. Did they even offer me drink tickets or something like that? No. Bummer man.

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