Let Inga Tell You: Thanks to Southwest Airlines, I may never fly again

Southwest Airlines employees look through misplaced bags as they try to reconnect passengers with their luggage in San Diego.
Southwest Airlines employees look through an area filled with misplaced bags as they try to reconnect Southwest passengers with their luggage at San Diego International Airport on Dec. 29.
(Hayne Palmour IV)

Thank you, Southwest Airlines. You have convinced me to never travel by air again.

No, I wasn’t flying during the Christmas holiday period (fortunately). But merely watching the debacle unfolding inside San Diego International Airport and at the airport’s rental car counters was so stressful that I think I have PTSD by proxy.

I cannot even imagine the reality of being there. Especially for people traveling with infants and young kids.

I’ve been plagued with plantar fasciitis for some months now, so the possibility of standing in those long lines would have been, well, an impossibility. But worse, my head would have exploded with the stress of it all. As I’ve gotten older, my tolerance for chaos and ineptitude has dwindled to pretty much zero.

I couldn’t help but reflect while watching these poor people be held hostage by Southwest that if their captors were terrorists, there would at least be someone negotiating for their release. And there would be food.

The CEO of Southwest appeared on the evening news saying he was “sorry.” Sorry????

If it were up to me, the CEO of Southwest would be sentenced to … what? No, there really isn’t enough punishment to compensate for the level of misery — and expense — that Southwest inflicted on thousands upon thousands of people. Offering 25,000 frequent-flier points toward future travel doesn’t cut it.

The proposed class-action suit seeks compensation for the thousands of customers whose holiday flights were canceled as rival airlines were able to rebound far more quickly from a pre-Christmas storm

Jan. 4, 2023

My grandchildren will never know what it was like for airline travel to be fun. But we oldies do. Below is Auntie Inga’s unapologetically jaded review of How Airline Travel has Devolved into the Prisoner of War Model. This is how I remember it, anyway.

In the golden days before airline fare deregulation in 1978, airlines actually wanted to make you happy. If your airplane left late, the airline felt so bad that it insisted on serving free champagne for the entire flight. If your flight was late or canceled, you could run over to a different airline that would be deliriously happy to take your ticket. No change fees, no hassle and plenty of seats. In fact, you often could have an empty seat next to you.

When prices were set (and yes, they used to be), the way the airlines could compete was by providing service like fluffy pillows, full meals and actually being really nice to the passengers. But once prices were not set, the airlines competed only by fares.

I think everyone thought deregulation would mean everything would be the same, only cheaper. Never has the phrase “There is no free lunch” been truer. Those fluffy pillows were now inflatables and cost $8. A “sandwich” consisting of two thick slices of stale bread and a thin sliver of turkey cost $10, and the airline personnel who used to be so nice had been replaced by graduates of the Evil Troll Travel School.

Airlines now think nothing of leaving passengers sitting on the tarmac for nine hours without food, water or working bathrooms. It’s OK to drag people off airplanes by their feet or eject families who couldn’t make a 2-year-old wear a mask.

In recent years, airlines seem to be canceling lots of flights citing “weather.” Global warming aside, there suddenly appeared to be a lot more weather than there used to be. All the airplanes are flying full, so if your flight gets canceled due to “weather,” or its evil and often imaginary siblings “mechanical problems,” “technical difficulties” or “air traffic control glitches,” there are no seats for three days unless you camp at the airline gate with your bags and try (usually futilely) for standby. I think my business traveler husband, Olof, got Marriott Gold status on Houston strandings alone.

Of course, it would make sense to go nonstop so you wouldn’t have to spend three days in Houston, but the airline people also implemented the “hub and spoke” model, not coincidentally resembling a torture device popular in the Middle Ages.

Trying to reach an airline during the COVID-19 pandemic got you a recording like this: “You have reached Lying Weasel Airlines. No one works here at the moment, except Fred. He’s on his lunch break. Till tomorrow. Rather than remain on hold, you can leave your number for a callback by Fred. In 2024. Please be prepared for the fact that if you ever reach Fred to reschedule your flight, you can expect that it will be canceled yet again. Which means you’ll have to call back and start this process all over. The next available agent has 450 people ahead of you.”

Now, when friends return from a trip, the first question is not about their destination but how their flights went. Awe is expressed if they went without a hitch.

You’ve convinced me, Southwest. I’m too old and too decrepit. And too nostalgic for the era — there actually used to be one — when your call really was important to a business and airlines actually had the slightest concern for the passengers.

Inga’s looks at life appear regularly in the La Jolla Light. Reach her at ◆