It continues to be astonishing that some companies refuse to offer even the slightest degree of flexibility to long-term customers in the midst of a global pandemic that has already killed around 235,000 Americans.
Times are tough, to be sure. Businesses strive for as much revenue as they can get their hands on.
But it seems decidedly short-sighted for loyal customers with strong arms when people need help and a little compassion can go a long way in securing future profits.
I’m saying all of this after speaking to Barbara Ashton, 76, the other day, who didn’t ask Southwest Airlines anywhere to allow her to extend about $ 156 of unused travel credit after the September 17 deadline.
The resident of Playa Vista has called herself a satisfied customer in the southwest for more than 40 years. She called the airline “my point of contact whenever possible for their excellent customer service and flexible flight change policy.”
Ashton said she and her husband used the credit known as the “Southwest Travel Fund” to book round-trip flights from Los Angeles to San Francisco in early March to see family members.
As the coronavirus spread, the couple decided to skip the flight and head north instead. Ashton has an autoimmune condition called polymyalgia rheumatica, which makes her prone to disease. Her 75-year-old husband Bruce suffers from high blood pressure.
All in all, flying didn’t seem wise.
Ashton said she knew the travel money would expire in mid-September, but she assumed it would be safe to travel by then.
“By mid-July, with no end to the pandemic in sight, I could see that we weren’t going to fly before the expiration date,” she told me.
Ashton said she contacted Southwest over the summer and was instructed by a service agent to call back after the Sept. 17 deadline to arrange an extension.
Your husband did just that a few weeks ago. He told me that he had been informed by Southwest that no extensions were being given. The service agent stated that the airline “needs to protect the integrity of our processes,” he said.
The $ 156 balance was gone.
I’ve written about the difficulty some people have faced while applying for refunds for air travel, cruises, and hotel bookings that were canceled due to a one-time public health disaster.
One of the more revealing developments has been that travel insurance companies keep people’s money even though related cruises have been canceled.
Needless to say, this is a miserable time to be in the airline business. The four largest US airlines have combined losses of at least $ 10 billion over the past two quarters.
The third quarter is usually a tough one for airlines as it includes summer travel. However, American Airlines reported a quarterly loss of $ 2.4 billion. Southwest lost nearly $ 1.2 billion.
Although the airlines hope the vacation travel situation will change this quarter, they have estimated it will take years to recover from the financial fallout from the pandemic.
Southwest says it will start selling mid-size seats again starting Dec. 1, based its decision on “science-based evidence from trusted medical and aviation organizations” rather than a desperate need for cash.
“Our top priority remains and remains the safety of our employees and customers,” said the airline’s executive director, Gary Kelly, in a statement.
Carriers say their air filtration systems reduce the risk of coronavirus. Some health experts say the jury is still not there.
In any case, Ashton took Kelly at her word. She wrote to him detailing her experience and a polite request that the airline keep their previous promise to extend travel credit.
“You wouldn’t lose any money,” she told me. “We’re not asking for a refund. We’re just looking for shelter while the world goes through disaster. “
Ashton added, “It’s the right thing. It’s the human thing. “
In response to her email to Kelly, a senior service representative expressed the company’s “regrets” at Ashton’s “continued disappointment”.
“I understand that, like many of our customers, you had concerns about travel and I am sad to learn that you were unable to use your travel funds on trips that were completed by the expiration date,” the representative said via email .
She also regretted “any confusion” resulting from the summer call where the airline said the couple should call back after the expiration date to arrange more time.
“Unfortunately, we can not comply with your request to use the funds that have expired,” said the representative. “We are really grateful for the loyalty you have shown us over the years. It is always our pleasure to serve you and we hope to see you and Bruce aboard soon. “
How’s that for a kick in the teeth?
Southwest is grateful for Ashton’s decades of loyal patronage and looks forward to selling her more tickets. But no, it won’t even show a small amount of flexibility amid a global pandemic that has disrupted travel around the world.
Again, this is not about a refund. It’s about allowing a customer to use a credit that they have already earned in exceptional circumstances.
Ashton said it wasn’t about the money in her case. “It’s the principle.”
For me, it’s about companies finally being able to respond to lip service over many years of how much they value customer loyalty – and come up short.
A spokesman from the Southwest declined to comment when I asked about the fairness of canceling a longtime customer’s travel credit during a pandemic.
But after contacting the airline, an executive contacted Ashton and said their loan would be extended by six months.
Good enough, Ashton told me later.
“I feel like you did what you should,” she said. “I feel like I’m not losing my money.”
I’m glad it worked. But I am also concerned that it takes so much effort to get a company to do the right thing.
“We are committed to taking care of our employees and customers while protecting the financial health of our company during the most difficult time in our nearly 50-year history,” said the CEO of Southwest, announcing this enormous quarterly loss.
These are not mutually exclusive goals. And customers will remember who was there for them in difficult times.
And who wasn’t.