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Fliers Left Up In The Air

Palisades Hudson employees travel a lot, and usually that travel goes smoothly. A few weeks ago, however, several of our staff members got caught in Southwest Airlines’ nationwide snarl.

After a three-day manager training in Fort Lauderdale, our New York-based staff flew home on JetBlue without incident. Our Atlanta staff members were not so lucky. A few hours after they hopped into airport-bound cabs, I got a call from ReKeithen Miller. He and his colleague Thomas Walsh had made it to the airport only to discover that their Southwest flight was delayed, with no clear estimated time of departure.

While we did not have the full story at that moment, ReKeithen and Thomas had fallen victim to a massive router failure that ultimately led Southwest to cancel thousands of flights over the next four days. Even at the time, however, we knew the problem was serious enough that a lot of flights would be canceled that night, in Fort Lauderdale and elsewhere.

Thomas had not checked any luggage. So, even though Southwest has no agreement in place with Delta to accommodate displaced passengers, we chose to buy him a Delta ticket at a walk-up fare so he could get home. He ended up leaving Florida less than an hour after his original departure time.

ReKeithen, on the other hand, had already checked his bag and could not retrieve it. He did not want to fly separately from his luggage, so he chose to take his chances on his original Southwest flight. That flight did leave for Atlanta, albeit nearly three hours later than it was originally scheduled. But ReKeithen got home that night.

Ben Sullivan, who is based in Austin, had even worse luck. His Southwest flight, which had been scheduled to depart later than the Atlanta-bound plane, was canceled outright, although he did not learn this until he arrived at the airport. He was rebooked for the next night, a Thursday, on a flight exactly 24 hours after his original departure. Despite his best efforts, and those of Aline Pitney (the administrative associate who handles much of the firm’s travel booking), we could not get him on any alternate Southwest itinerary sooner than that.

So Ben worked out of our Fort Lauderdale office on Thursday. Before he could head to the airport that evening, he got word the new flight was also delayed, so he took the opportunity to go to dinner. While he was eating, Aline was advised via an email from Southwest that Ben’s second flight, too, had been canceled outright.

We knew then that Southwest would have three days’ worth of Austin-bound passengers to cram onto Friday’s flights. Ben’s odds were not good, so we gave him a choice. Ben’s sister happens to live in Tampa; he could spend the weekend with her and then fly back to Austin from there. Or, alternately, we could book him on a JetBlue flight to Texas for Friday. After checking with his sister, he decided on the latter course, and finally made it home two days later than he expected.

Thanks to some persistent follow-up on Aline’s part, we secured 50 percent discounts on the next Southwest flights booked for Thomas, ReKeithen and Ben. Southwest also offered a $200 voucher to Ben, as a partial offset for his JetBlue flight after his double cancelation; an airline employee told Aline that they will also eventually cover the cost of his extra hotel nights and the remainder of his JetBlue fare, though as of this writing, those requests are still being processed – hardly surprising, given the number of passengers affected by the outage.

Our firm did not benefit from so-called “interline” agreements between Southwest and either Delta or JetBlue. We knew that we wouldn’t. But as the company president, I decided to spend our money to get our people home as early as possible anyway. Leisure travelers and others on tight budgets would not have had that flexibility. This is particularly a problem because the entire air travel system is operating so close to capacity that any loss of flexibility places a major burden on travelers who run into problems.

The most recent group of travelers to feel this pain were those unlucky enough to hold reservations on Delta this week. A computer system failure on Monday stranded thousands of passengers and triggered hundreds of canceled flights. These sorts of technical failures, which seem to crop up several times a year, can quickly turn the normal stress of airline travel into a multi-day ordeal.

In the past, interlining softened this pain. When technical problems grounded one or more flights, major air carriers placed passengers on competitors’ flights at an agreed discount to the walk-up price. Delta passengers might have found their way home on an American Airlines flight, for instance, typically without having to pay extra.

But, as The Wall Street Journal reported, changes in the airline industry have made such agreements less common than they used to be. Budget carriers like Southwest tend not to have interline deals at all, since transferring passengers to larger competitors would involve large premiums to make up the fare difference, even at a discount. And legacy airlines are reluctant to forgo the prospect of a hefty walk-on fare by giving up a seat to a competitor’s displaced customer.

These problems assume airlines take responsibility for travel disruptions in the first place. In another recent incident, a relative of mine planned to fly on JetBlue from Jacksonville, Florida, to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. He was notified the night before that his flight had been canceled due to weather issues, though those issues were based in neither Jacksonville nor New York.

JetBlue was willing to reschedule him on another flight, but there was no remaining capacity out of Jacksonville. Apparently neither my relative (who is new to Florida) nor the JetBlue reservation clerk (who was likely based out of the airline’s major customer support facility in Utah) proved particularly adept at local geography. JetBlue flies to New York from several cities within a few hours’ drive of Jacksonville, including Orlando and Daytona Beach in Florida, and Savannah and Charleston to the north.

Instead, my relative rented a car at his own expense and drove himself the five hours to Fort Lauderdale overnight in order to catch the early morning flight on which he had been rebooked and salvage his weekend plans in New York.

As was the case with extended ground delays, airline behavior will not change unless regulators force it to change. The airlines will find ways to make travel less burdensome on passengers once they have no choice, but no earlier. Before the Transportation Department stepped in, passengers regularly ran the risk of finding themselves stranded on the tarmac for hours at a stretch; now this occurrence is rare. There was nothing airlines could do – until doing nothing racked up hefty fines.

It is true that airlines can’t control the weather, and nobody wants a plane to fly when it is not safe for it to be in the air. But airlines can control who fills the seats on the planes that do fly. Either out of business necessity or regulatory requirement, they can make sure that the passengers who purchased a confirmed seat to get to a certain place at a certain time arrive as close to that time as possible without exorbitant expense – and without having to drive all night to get there.

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