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Customers of Southwest question their loyalty after massive flight delays


Life is so busy during the holiday season that it can be tough to keep up on the news. But people who have tickets to fly on Southwest may have time to hear this next story while they wait for the airline to work out cancellations and delays. NPR's Stacey Vanek Smith asked how a winter storm hit this airline more than others.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Hillary Chang (ph) has been a Southwest Airlines devotee for years. Chang is 29, and she and her boyfriend travel a lot.

HILLARY CHANG: I am, like, a very loyal Southwest customer. I have a Southwest credit card. We actually only fly Southwest.

VANEK SMITH: Chang and her boyfriend were booked on a Southwest flight on Christmas Day from Baltimore to LA with a connection in Houston. They arrived in Houston hours late, only to learn their flight to LA had been canceled. They were told to get their bags and try to rebook.

CHANG: We hurry to baggage claim, and it's just bags everywhere - probably over a thousand. It's like if you had Legos from a bucket and you were to dump them on the ground. That's what it looked like. So I'm not going to lie. I was in tears, crying.

VANEK SMITH: Southwest has canceled over 13,000 flights in the last few days - 10 times more than any other airline. Industry analyst Richard Aboulafia says it's not surprising airlines struggled, given the terrible storm, as well as the staffing shortages they've been experiencing. But he says he never expected Southwest to emerge as the cancellation king.

RICHARD ABOULAFIA: They've got the best reputation for customer service and management agility. They're usually pretty good at responding to crises.

VANEK SMITH: So what went wrong? The problem seems to be twofold. First, Aboulafia says, most airlines are on a so-called hub-and-spoke system. They pool resources in certain cities and route most of their flights through there. It is less efficient day to day, but it can make it easier to pivot when things go wrong. Southwest uses a so-called point-to-point system, which is leaner and more efficient, but also means resources are more scattered.

ABOULAFIA: Their route system rendered it uniquely vulnerable to a storm-precipitated meltdown.

VANEK SMITH: So did outdated technology. That is what the president of the Southwest Flight Attendants Union, Lyn Montgomery, told NPR.

LYN MONTGOMERY: The way that they have to notify their flight crews is a manual process. You actually have to talk to a crew scheduler.

VANEK SMITH: Longtime Southwest loyalist Hillary Chang says that system's meltdown was on full display at the Houston airport on Christmas.

CHANG: There were hundreds of people standing in line. It wrapped all the way around the building. There was, like, crying children and moms that are breastfeeding. And there are people who are elderly, like, really bundled up 'cause Houston just happened to be freezing on Christmas.

VANEK SMITH: Chang and her boyfriend quickly realized they would have to fend for themselves. They rented a car and drove the 21 hours back to Los Angeles. Chang doesn't expect to get her suitcase back ever, which is really upsetting. Chang's boyfriend just proposed, and the ring is on her finger. But the ring box was in her suitcase, and she was hoping to save it as a keepsake. Chang says all of this has really shaken her years-long loyalty to Southwest.

CHANG: I'm open to dating a new airline.

VANEK SMITH: Social media is full of former Southwest loyalists saying they are done with the carrier. Meanwhile, Southwest's CEO released a statement saying they're working to understand what went so wrong and are, quote, "apologizing daily to staff and customers."

Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.