It Was Bound to Happen Eventually

6414430209_6e0e1a67fb_z (1)When my cab pulled up to Terminal 1 at LAX on Tuesday, I cringed: The line outside Southwest Airlines’ doors snaked down the sidewalk. Bomb scare? Computer system down? Flight schedule bottleneck? I immediately made a beeline for the self-serve kiosks I knew were just inside the door, feeling a little smug that I was an experienced traveler and knew I did not need to wait in line.

Unfortunately, after recognizing my identity and my destination airport, three different kiosks told me I’d need to talk with an agent. So there I was, at the end of the line with all the leisure travelers, despite my best efforts to find someone who could talk with me immediately.

Things did not get better. When I finally reached the check-in agent, she told me she couldn’t find my confirmation number. I showed her the email, and she tried every which way to “locate” me. Finally, she checked the date.

That’s right, my ticket was for the flight three days prior. Well, that was humbling. After handing over my credit card and getting booked on a full-fare ticket (plus losing my funds on the “missed” flight since that’s SWA’s policy on no-shows), I gathered my belongings and headed to the gate.

The inevitable had happened. I’d made a stupid mistake and booked a ticket on the wrong date. This was something I thought about a couple of years ago when interviewing a frequent flyer who said it was one of his big fears because he traveled so much and was booking flights so quickly. He knew booking the wrong date was bound to happen eventually. A friend made the mistake a few years back. And now, I had, too.

I bought the ticket online a few weeks ago, while in a hurry, on a complicated, multi-leg itinerary. Now there was nothing to do but swallow my pride, eat the cost, and learn from it.

Have you ever booked a ticket on the wrong day?


Photo: Flickr/Aero Icarus

Southwest Airlines puts civility back into boarding

In the last month, I have had occasion to fly Southwest eight times, unusual because I have always disliked WN and do everything in my power to avoid it. My distaste, I recently realized, has been based primarily on open seating. Everyone has their airline hot button, the factor that provokes a guttural reaction, and for me, it’s seat selection.

This comes after too many years of transcon flights when my kids were babies and toddlers, a time when seating security–knowing exactly where we were sitting and the configuration–reduced onboard stress.  (For years my husband and I sat 2/2 behind each other so that our then-toddler could kick the seat of his older brother sitting in front of him, instead of some kind but easily irritated stranger.)

Southwest, despite pressure from loyal fans/customers to switch to assigned seating, has repeatedly recommitted to its open seating policy based on cost/efficiency savings. (Remember, WN is a low-cost, not low-fare, airline.) But what they have done very smartly is to evolve the process so that open seating has become painless. Remember the days when you received a plastic boarding pass at the gate, which determined when you could board and scramble for a seat? Fast forward to a seamless and well-organized A, B and C-group assignment given at online checkin, with options for Early Bird Check-In for a fee and A-group assignments for A-List (elite) Rapid Rewards members and certain business fares. Once you have your group letter and number, clear and simple signage and announcements get everyone lined up in a fast and efficient way. Passengers know the process (it’s easy even for first-timers) and the mood at the gate is relaxed and “luv-ly.”

Legacy carriers, meanwhile, have commoditized  seat selection. Getting an aisle or window seat without paying an ancillary fee has become an art. And messy boarding processes have heightened the stressful fight for overhead bin space. Airlines have experimented with myriad boarding procedures, leaving passengers confused about how boarding will occur (and how your group number is determined) and jockeying for position at the gate. My favorite trick (and it’s appalling that I’ve even devised such a trick)  is to begin the boarding process to the side of the gate agent, where I can slip in first for my group without appearing ruthless.

This new chaos at legacy carrier gates, ironically, has put Southwest back in my good graces because it has created a trusted, less stressful boarding environment. On Southwest, I have options for bettering my boarding position so once onboard I can choose a great seat. I know what to expect at the gate. And so do my fellow passengers. I had to laugh recently when I saw United had introduced group boarding lanes at SFO gates, not unlike Southwest’s.  The tides have changed, and I now call myself a Southwest fan (as long as I can control my position in the A group).