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One of the most powerful things about social media is that it can take you to the heart of any situation: a Lizzo concert, a political rally, an emu farm in Florida, a picnic where a young man expresses his devotion to corn…
Or a Southwest Airlines baggage claim at Houston airport on Christmas Day, where a sea of suitcases stretches as far as the eye can see.
This video was posted by Hillary Chang, 29, a longtime Southwest Airlines enthusiast. “I’m a very loyal customer in the Southwest,” says Chang, who frequently travels with her boyfriend. “I have a Southwest credit card. We actually only fly southwest.”
At least they did.
Chang and her boyfriend had booked a flight southwest on Christmas Day from Baltimore to their home in Los Angeles, connecting in Houston. They arrived in Houston a few hours late, only to learn that their flight to Los Angeles had been cancelled. They were told to collect their bags and try to book again.
They rushed to baggage claim, where the TikTok scene spread out in front of them. What Chang didn’t mention was that her boyfriend had recently proposed and (while the ring itself was on her finger) the ring box was in her checked bag and she hoped to keep it as a keepsake.
“I’m not going to lie, I was in tears,” she laughs. “I was. I was crying.”
Trying to get help from (or even be heard by) Southwest was futile, Chang says. There were hundreds of people queuing for customer service. Still, Chang might have a voice and find a sympathetic ear on social media.
“This is what Houston airport looks like,” she said in the TikTok, browsing through hundreds of unclaimed suitcases. It’s enough to chill the blood of any great traveler.
Last week, a series of massive winter storms hit the United States and brought holiday travel to a virtual halt in parts of the country.
All airlines have had cancellations and delays, but none like Southwest Airlines, which has canceled more than 15,000 flights, 10 times more than any other carrier.
It’s a public relations disaster for Southwest, not to mention a financial blow. Citigroup believes the holiday flying debacle could cause significant damage to the airline’s revenue.
Social media is magnifying Southwest’s black eye. All week, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok have been filled with images and videos of harrowing travel experiences, making the scale of failure that much more visceral.
A woman tweeted that she was stuck at the airport for days with two toddlers and a baby.
Posts like these have millions of views and comments such as “Don’t fly with @SouthwestAir people” and “Southwest is going to be destroyed because of this and rightly so”.
Even the White House jumped in, with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg tweeting the airline.
A week after the storm hit, all but one airline has recovered. Overall, we see around 3% of flights being canceled, not including the unacceptable performance of Southwest – which canceled 59% yesterday. The USDOT is investigating and we are enforcing customer service standards.
— Secretary Pete Buttigieg (@SecretaryPete) December 29, 2022
Airline analyst Richard Aboulafia, with AeroDynamic Advisory, says he was shocked by the South West collapse.
“They have the best reputation for customer service and management agility,” he says. “They’re usually pretty good at responding to crises and I’m really surprised by all of that.”
Still, Aboulafia thinks Southwest Airlines could win back those customers if it handles the situation the right way. “As bad as this weekend was, there were no safety issues,” he said. “I think customers can forgive them.”
South West Loyalist Hillary Chang isn’t so sure.
Stuck in Houston, staring at the expanse of skateboards and a giant line of frustrated travellers, Chang and her fiancé realized they would have to fend for themselves.
They rented a car and drove the 9 p.m. back to Los Angeles. Chang posted a short TikTok of the road trip, which involved driving through the night in order to get back to work on the morning of December 27. The TikTok yielded fruit – one of Chang’s friends sent him $50 for gas, wishing the couple well on their long drive.
Southwest CEO Bob Jordan posted his own video on social media, calling the week-long crisis a “giant headache” and pledging to shed light on what happened. And although thousands of customers are still stranded, Southwest says it expects to resume normal operations by Friday and is taking new reservations for the first time in days.
In the wake of large-scale disruptions, we are working diligently to safely resume operations and welcome displaced customers and teams. We know this is unacceptable and we sincerely apologize. If your trip has been impacted, explore self-service options here: https://t.co/B6L8HR9Yqc pic.twitter.com/mLWndYMned
—Southwest Airlines (@SouthwestAir) December 28, 2022
It’s cold comfort for Chang, who says she’s questioned her years-long loyalty to the carrier.
“I’ve got 50,000 miles with them…and I’ve thought about it, believe me. I’m not totally done with Southwest, but I’m open…I’m open to hanging out with another airline.”
Chang no longer expects to see his suitcase (or his ring box) again. “People keep telling me to stay positive, but if they had seen what I saw at Houston airport, they wouldn’t have done it,” she says. “I can hope that maybe he’ll show up in a few weeks, but at this point I think mentally I just have to say, ‘It’s on and it’s okay.'”