Wednesday, December 21, 2011

First Experience Flying Southwest

"Bags fly free!" "No change fee!" "No blackout dates, no red tape!"

credit: Businessweek
If you watch television on a regular basis--or travel a lot--you know that these are the common catchphrases of Southwest Airlines, probably America's most popular budget carrier. Many of you have flown Southwest and have your own opinions about them. So now it is finally my turn to weigh in.

I recently returned from my Christmas vacation back in Denver, and I had the opportunity to experience Southwest for myself for the first time. Obviously, I had all the flashy advertisements running in my head, as well as the many comments from my friends and coworkers who have flown with them, but I had to push that all to the back of my mind and go into the whole trip with as clear and unbiased an opinion as possible.

On the day that I flew out of Chicago, I went online to check-in for my flight. I am accustomed to having a reserved seat, so the whole process was a little different for me. At first I was confused as I glanced at the boarding pass. Seating A, position 19. What does that mean? Also, after I printed my boarding pass, there was no button or link to say that I had completed the check-in process. I was sure that if I hit the link that said "return to previous page" that the whole thing would void out and I would have to try again. Yet there was no indication on the previous page that anything was wrong, so I assumed I had done it correctly, though I wish it had been clearer. When I checked the status of my flight--which was scheduled to leave at 6:00 p.m.--the website said there was a 40 minute delay. This was at 8:30 a.m. At first I was irritated that they could predict so early that the flight would be late, so I investigated earlier flight options, but they were all booked. Luckily, I checked back a few hours later and it had changed to a 10 minute delay...much better.

As far as checking bags, that could not have been easier. (It also helped that there were no lines at Midway Airport.) I just went up to the kioks, scanned the barcode on my boarding pass, selected the number of bags I was checking, and the attendant placed the sticker on my suitcase and I was on my way. Less than five minutes, I can handle that.

The boarding process was certainly different. I have flown on airlines that do not have seat assignments, but those were all in Europe--Ryan Air, EasyJet--and the system was pretty unorganized. With Southwest, it was slightly more coordinated, but still a bit of a jumble. I had opted to pay a little extra to make sure I was in the first seating group--which I highly recommend. When they called for seating A, I headed up to the numbered poles that were lined up near the gate. Since there isn't anyone around to make sure people are in the proper order, you have to trust the people around you, and I was pleasantly surprised that no one tried to hop in front of anyone else or claim they had a higher number so they could go ahead. We stood in line for a few minutes, which I didn't mind, but many of my fellow travelers were growing impatient. At this point, we were still scheduled to leave 10 minutes late, but if we boarded fast enough, it could have been sooner. The Southwest employee working at the gate announced that positions 1-30 would be boarding, so we all began filing through the door. A young man ahead of me was a little confused by the process, and was unsure if he was in the right place. The employee was very pushy, urging him along and not answering his questions. I understood he was trying to speed up boarding, but he was definitely a little rude to passengers.

Once on the plane, I grabbed the first aisle seat possible and waited patiently as everyone else boarded. I was impressed with how quickly people got on the plane, tossed their bags up and sat down. I think everyone got on in about 15 minutes, which I had never experienced before. I thought we had a good chance of leaving close to on time, worse case a couple minutes late. However, we ended up sitting at the gate for another 15 minutes. The reason? Our bags. Indeed, boarding was super quick, but it was so efficient that our luggage couldn't keep up, which meant our valiant efforts to leave on time were thwarted.

My flight to Denver had a stop over in Omaha, Nebraska, but I didn't have to switch planes, which was nice. Still, I was worried about how quick the layover would be, since we were already running a little late. Anyone staying in Omaha was quick to depart, which I appreciated, but Southwest needed to switch the flight crew, so that ended up taking a little over half an hour. With a good tale wind and a determined pilot, we landed in Denver exactly when we were supposed to, and once again I was pleasantly surprised. I went from a 40 minute delay to arriving right on time, way to under promise and over deliver.

Waiting for the my luggage was the most annoying part of the whole trip. I must have stood at the carrousel for almost a half hour, and it had taken me at least 15 minutes to walk through the concourse, catch the train and get over to the baggage claim, so in total it took nearly 45 minutes for the bags to even get there.

Even with the layover, the weather and the minor delays, the trip to Denver went pretty smooth, and I was happy to report only a couple setbacks. The return trip to Chicago went even better. There were long lines at DIA for checking bags, but employees at the kiosks were very helpful and they had made sure to staff enough people to keep the line moving. The boarding process, once again, went very quickly, and this time our bags were pretty much on the same schedule. We only sat at the gate for a few minutes before taxiing out. And while the flight was quick and relaxing, what made it most enjoyable was our flight attendant. Our safety demonstration was more than just a tutorial on buckling our seatbelts, but rather a short comedy routine. It definitely lightened the mood a bit, and showed that some Southwest employees really do enjoy their work.
Upon arrival in Chicago, I once again had to wait an exceptionally long time for my bags. It was irritating, but nothing I hadn't experienced with any other airline.

Overall, I would say my journey with Southwest was pretty good. I would give them an average rating of an A-, mostly because the check-in and boarding process can be a bit confusing and hectic, and the long wait for bags was a bit of an issue. Southwest definitely gets points for having an efficient bag check--and no bag fee is certainly a bonus--as well as giving out free snacks on board, a friendly staff and on-time departures and arrivals.

However, I am not a complete convert just yet. Yes, on this particular trip, Southwest had the best fares, but that is not always the case. I have often found other airlines to be cheaper or have better flight times, so I cannot say for sure that I will pick Southwest over another airline in the future based on their benefits. Pricing is always a big factor in my airline decision process. Whoever has the best bid will win my business.

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