The airline has more than 2 million Twitter followers and 6 million Facebook fans, a group of frequent flyers and once-a-year travelers who gush about its free checked bags, fare sales, flight attendants, fee-free ticket changes and new flights to Hawaii.
Rare are nonstop rants. Until now. Southwest, which calls itself the love airline – the ticker symbol for its stock is LUV – is suddenly seeing a steady stream of hate on social media that threatens to damage its sterling reputation.
Travelers started to turn on Southwest in mid-February when the airline saw a spike in last-minute flight cancellations due to maintenance issues it blamed on a dispute with mechanics. The complaints escalated with the March 13 grounding of the Boeing 737 Max 8. Southwest has more Max 8s than any U.S. carrier and has scrambled to accommodate those passengers. Combined, the two incidents have led to more than 5,600 flight cancellations at Southwest, an unprecedented number of non-weather related cancellations.
Passengers aren't complaining about the grounding of the plane involved in two fatal crashes in less than five months. They're peeved about Southwest's handling of passenger rebookings, especially last-minute flight cancellations that leave them with few options. And they're perplexed by Southwest's uncharacteristic lack of flexibility, with affected passengers given two options: take the alternate flight, even if it's days later or to a different airport, or get a refund.
In social media post after post, passengers slam the nation's largest domestic carrier for stranding them, cutting vacations short, forcing the purchase of pricey last-minute tickets on other airlines, long waits on the phone and for giving little compensation, if any, as a goodwill gesture or to cover expenses incurred by passengers.
The airline is not required to provide compensation for flight disruptions due to factors out of its control, such as the weather or the FAA-mandated Max grounding. Travelers have just come to expect more from the airline that touts its customer-friendly policies.
"Buyer be aware,'' a passenger posted on Southwest's Facebook page Wednesday morning. "Southwest just isn't dependable right now.''
A few hours later, another traveler posted a lengthy complaint on Southwest's Facebook page about a last-minute flight cancellation Wednesday at Los Angeles International Airport due to the Max 8 reshuffling.
"Southwest's lack of planning should not have cost me a day's pay, a one day delay in arriving to my destination, a bad seat choice, and increased rental car fees,'' the poster said. "Really bad form, Southwest, really bad form.''
Southwest has seen a spike in negative sentiment since the grounding of the Max 8, according to SEMrush, a global search analytics firm that pulled social media data for USA TODAY. In the last week of March, for example, the percentage of negative comments versus positive comments about Southwest on Twitter ranged from nearly 40% to as high as 54%. That compares with a range of 28% to 37% in the last week of January, according to the firm.
Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz, in response to questions from USA TODAY, acknowledged a spike in negative comments and overall negative social media sentiment. But he says the complaints represent a small portion of the airline's customer base. Southwest carried 120 million passengers last year.
Mainz said passenger frustration is to be expected given the length of the Max 8 groundings. Southwest said Friday that it has now taken the plane out of its schedule through May. He likened the flight impact to a winter storm that lasts for weeks and weeks.
"The duration is one major factor of what makes this situation highly unusual –especially for our customers,'' Mainz said. "We know it’s been frustrating for our customers, but we have taken several steps to try to minimize the inconvenience and frustration.''
The airline said it offered "massive flexibility'' for ticket changes to all travelers after the Max grounding, whether or not they were scheduled on a Max 8. Southwest never charges a ticket change fee but does charge for any fare difference since the ticket was purchased. It was waiving that fare difference for all travelers through March 31 and the policy still applies to passengers impacted by the Max 8 grounding.
Mainz said passengers should see fewer last-minute cancellations due to the reduced flight schedule announced Friday, which gives it more time to notify travelers than the five days or shorter window they had been using, as well as other moves Southwest is making to restore "brand-standard reliability.''
American Airlines has the second-highest number of Max 8 planes among U.S. carriers – 24 to Southwest's 34 – but has not seen social media backlash on a similar scale except for the first couple days after the grounding.
American spokesman Ross Feinstein said the airline revised its flight schedule for a broad period as soon as the planes were grounded so it could strategically cancel flights as far in advance as possible to give travelers the most options.
"As long as you offer a viable solution for the customer, they've been pretty understanding and will take those alternatives,'' he said.
Unlike Southwest, American has the added tool of being able to put affected travelers on other airlines including United and Delta. The airline has been cutting its use of this costly option but still offers it on a case-by-case basis. American has been putting some passengers, especially elite frequent flyers, on other airlines during the Max 8 grounding, Feinstein said.
The big question is whether Southwest has done permanent damage to its brand.
Eric Schiffer, chairman of Reputation Management Consultants, says he sees "zero empathy'' from Southwest for travelers impacted by thousands of cancellations, even if they were out of its control. The airline is treating the rebookings like transactions instead of thinking about its hard-fought relationship with travelers.
"It’s like they're marauding customers instead of treating customers with great respect and empathy,'' he said. "And I think that is a threat to the future of Southwest. You're only as good as your customer's willingness to commit to the brand.''
Southwest doesn't appear too worried. Mainz said the airline tends to recover better than other airlines due to its customer service and "very loyal fan base.''
"We feel we have the ability to regain their love, support and loyalty better than anyone,'' he said.
This Ohio retiree had to cancel her trip to California and eat the costs of an Airbnb rental.
Jan Laing and her husband were already packed for their Saturday morning flight from Columbus, Ohio, to Oakland, California, in late March, their first flight in more than six years, when Jan received a text from Southwest at 10:08 p.m. the night before.
Their flight was canceled, and she was directed to call Southwest. After an hour on the phone, Laing says she was told the next available flight to Oakland wasn't until Monday.
She searched for affordable flights on other airlines because Southwest famously doesn't book passengers on other airlines under so-called interline agreements. One price quoted: $1,600 per person. That was nearly as much as they paid for three round trip tickets on Southwest. The higher priced tickets weren't in their retiree budget, even though they were looking forward to their first flight in more than six years. .
"You just don't book an airline the same day,'' she said. "We tried, we really, really tried.''
The couple was meeting up with family members in California, and a Monday arrival wouldn't work with their schedule, so they reluctantly canceled the trip. It was too late to cancel their four-night Airbnb reservation in Manchester, California, so they ate the $700 cost and had to pay $50 to cancel their car rental.
Laing, 67, reached out to Southwest on Facebook and pressed her case with Southwest's customer relations department but didn't get far. The airline eventually offered to provide each passenger a $50 voucher "as an apology and to invite you back for (a) more favorable experience."
"They were polite. They were apologetic. But I felt like they were saying to me, 'Too bad, so sad, sorry about your luck.''
"I would probably fly Southwest again because we’ve had good experience with them,'' Laing said. "But I probably wouldn't fly in the near future until their whole fleet is back in service and the dust has settled.''
A Seattle-area family was forced to spend an extra $1,300 on Delta to make it to Virginia for a family reunion.
Jeremy Fleck booked Southwest tickets for a family spring break trip to visit his grandmother in Virginia. They were scheduled to fly from Seattle to Norfolk, Virginia, on Friday, March 29.
Six days before the flight, Fleck was notified their flight was canceled. The soonest Southwest could get them on another flight: Monday, April 1.
Flying out on another airline, they calculated after shopping around, would cost an additional $1,300 for the family of four, even after a refund from Southwest.
Fleck, a 39-year-old IT systems analyst, decided they couldn't afford it and informed more than a dozen family members who planned to meet them there because they wanted to see the couple's kids, ages 4 and 8.
They insisted and all chipped in help pay for four flights on Delta.
Fleck is a big Southwest fan for business and vacation travel but was offended by the airline's response, when he asked to be put on another airline or to receive vouchers for his inconvenience and extra expense.
"The only thing we are willing and able to do is give you your money back,'' Fleck said he was told. "They acted as if that was like a privilege, like they were doing this wonderful thing. It makes your head want to explode.''
He and his wife called and sent e-mails to Southwest customer relations hoping for vouchers, something he considered a reasonable request. Every time, he said, they got the same response: "We're not obligated to do anything.''
A San Diego teacher had to cut her spring break trip to Belize short. She lost money on a jungle cruise, airport transfers and a hotel reservation.
Amanda Fanning and her boyfriend booked a five-night tropical vacation to Belize in January for spring break.
The 38-year-old San Diego teacher and teachers' union representative left Tuesday, April 2.
They were supposed to return Sunday, April 7.
A few days before their Southwest departure, the airline left her a voicemail telling her the return flight had been changed. They wanted her to call to confirm that it was acceptable.
Fanning didn't recognize Southwest's number and figured it was a robocall, so she didn't listen to the voicemail until she returned from a conference a couple of days later. Southwest had changed the return flight to Saturday, April 6. It was only a day earlier, but it was an already short vacation and the couple had booked a jungle cruise and trip to Mayan ruins for Saturday. And they weren't due to check out of their hotel until Sunday.
The first Southwest representative she reached was sympathetic, Fanning said.
"She said, 'You're right. This is totally unacceptable. They need to do something for you, let me put you through to a supervisor,''' Fanning recalled.
She asked the supervisor to switch to a Monday flight, which would extend her trip by a day instead of cutting it short. Southwest said the earliest available flight after April 6 was April 14.
"My school district and my students wouldn't appreciate it if I was gone that long,'' she said.
Booking on another airline for Sunday would have cost $800, not an option.
The supervisor left her with two options: come home early or cancel her trip.
She asked to speak to a customer service manager but was told the office was closed until Monday.
She received a $200 voucher for a future Southwest flight, but Southwest wouldn't budge on finding them a Sunday or Monday flight, even though Fanning has elite status in the airline's frequent flyer program.
On Monday, a day before departure, they decided the only option was to cut their trip short. They're out $160 for the jungle cruise and $225 for the Saturday night hotel.
When Fanning was caught up in Southwest's major computer meltdown in July 2016, she said Southwest showered her and other travelers with vouchers for half-price tickets. But the outage was Southwest's fault.
"In the past, they've always been super proactive,'' Fanning said. "In this case, they're kind of just saying, 'Too bad.'''
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Southwest blasted for poor Max 8 customer service: 'They're kind of just saying, 'Too bad''