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Column: It shouldn’t be this hard for businesses to do right during the pandemic

A pair of seniors were unable to use their Southwest Airlines travel credit because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A pair of seniors were unable to use their Southwest Airlines travel credit because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then they had to fight to keep it.
(Getty Images)

It continues to astonish that some companies are refusing to show longtime customers even the most modest flexibility amid a global pandemic that’s already killed about 235,000 Americans.

I mean, really?

Times are tough, to be sure. Businesses are scrambling for as much revenue as they can get their hands on.

But it seems decidedly shortsighted to strong-arm loyal customers at a time when people need help, and when a little compassion can go a long way toward ensuring future profits.

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I say all this after speaking the other day with Barbara Ashton, 76, who had gotten nowhere pleading with Southwest Airlines to allow her to extend about $156 in unused travel credit past a Sept. 17 deadline.

The Playa Vista resident described herself as being a satisfied Southwest customer for more than 40 years. She called the carrier “my go-to airline, whenever possible, because of the excellent customer service and the flexible policy on changing flights.”

Ashton said she and her husband had used the credit, known as Southwest “travel funds,” to book a round-trip flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco to see family members in early March.

As the coronavirus spread, the couple decided to forgo the flight and drive north instead. Ashton has an autoimmune disorder called polymyalgia rheumatica that makes her vulnerable to sickness. Her 75-year-old husband, Bruce, has hypertension.

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Flying didn’t seem wise, all things considered.

Ashton said she knew the travel funds would expire in mid-September, but she assumed it would be safe to travel by then.

“By mid-July, with no end in sight for the pandemic, I could see that we would not be flying before the expiration date,” she told me.

Ashton said she contacted Southwest over the summer and was instructed by a service rep to call back after the Sept. 17 deadline had passed to arrange an extension.

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Her husband did just that a few weeks ago. He told me he was informed by Southwest that no extensions were being given. The service rep explained that the airline has to “protect the integrity of our processes,” he said.

The $156 in credit was gone.

I’ve written about the difficulties some people have faced in seeking refunds for air travel, cruises and hotel bookings that were canceled because of a once-in-a-generation public health disaster.

One of the more eye-opening developments involved travel insurance companies keeping people’s money even though related cruises were canceled.

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Needless to say, this is a miserable time to be in the airline business. The four largest U.S. carriers racked up at least $10 billion in combined losses in each of the last two quarters.

The third quarter is typically a strong one for airlines because it includes summer travel. But American Airlines reported a quarterly loss of $2.4 billion. Southwest lost nearly $1.2 billion.

Although carriers say they’re hoping things will turn around with holiday travel in the current quarter, they’ve estimated it will take years to recover from the financial hit they’ve experienced as a result of the pandemic.

Southwest says it will start selling middle seats again beginning Dec. 1, basing its decision on “science-based findings from trusted medical and aviation organizations” rather than a desperate need for cash.

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“Our top priority remains, and always will be, the safety of our employees and customers,” the airline’s chief executive, Gary Kelly, said in a statement.

Carriers say their air-filtration systems reduce coronavirus risk. Some healthcare experts say the jury’s still out.

In any case, Ashton took Kelly at his word. She wrote to him with details of her experience and a polite request that the airline honor its earlier pledge to extend travel credits.

“They wouldn’t lose any money,” she told me. “We’re not asking for a refund. We’re just seeking an accommodation as the world goes through a catastrophe.”

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Ashton added: “It’s the right thing to do. It’s the human thing to do.”

In response to her email to Kelly, a senior-level service rep expressed the company’s “regret” about Ashton’s “continued disappointment.”

“I understand that, like many of our customers, you’ve had concerns about traveling, and I’m saddened to learn that you were unable to apply your travel funds towards travel completed by the expiration date,” the rep said by email.

She also voiced regret about “any confusion” resulting from the summertime call in which the airline said the couple should phone back after the expiration date had passed to arrange more time.

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“Regrettably, we remain unable to meet your request to reinstate the expired funds,” the rep said. “We’re truly grateful for the loyalty you’ve shown us over the years. It’s always our pleasure to serve you, and we hope to have an opportunity to welcome you and Bruce onboard soon.”

How’s that for a kick in the teeth?

Southwest is grateful for Ashton’s decades of loyal patronage and is looking forward to selling her more tickets. But, no, it won’t show even a small amount of flexibility amid a global pandemic that’s disrupted travel worldwide.

Again, this isn’t about a refund. It’s about allowing a customer to use a credit she’s already earned amid extraordinary circumstances.

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Ashton said it’s not about the money in her case. “It’s the principle.”

To me, it’s about businesses finally being in a position to act on many years of lip service about how much they value the loyalty of customers — and coming up short.

A Southwest spokesman declined to comment when I asked about the fairness of terminating a longtime customer’s travel credit during a pandemic.

But after I reached out to the airline, an executive contacted Ashton and said her credit will be extended for six months.

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Good enough, Ashton told me afterward.

“I feel like they did what they should do,” she said. “I feel like I’m not losing my money.”

I’m glad it worked out. But I’m also troubled that it requires so much effort to get a business to do the right thing.

“We are committed to taking care of our employees and customers while protecting the financial health of our company through the most challenging time in our nearly 50-year history,” Southwest’s CEO said in announcing that huge quarterly loss.

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Those aren’t mutually exclusive goals. And customers will remember who was there for them when times were tough.

And who wasn’t.


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