Southwest Airlines: Website Horror Stories, Part II

Even Rod Serling couldn't make this latest Southwest story up ...

You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind.  A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the sign post up ahead, your next stop … The Personal Finance Twilight Zone.

And I thought my recent adventure with Southwest Airlines was infuriating!

While Southwest was pulling a classic bait and switch maneuver on me last week, offering two non-refundable tickets from Denver to Southern California for $114 each, only to change their mind after I tried to purchase them (and pushing much more expensive fares in their place), they were really sticking it to some of their other customers.

According to this report from a CBS television affiliate in Sacramento:

Southwest Airlines charged Romona Cobian $11,407 for a ticket to Los Angeles.

“My stomach just flip flopped. I thought ‘oh, what’s going on?’ They’re going to deplete my bank account.”

They did, leaving Cobian with no way to pay her credit card bills, buy gas or even food. Her debit card statements show Southwest charged her 51 times the cost of the $135 airfare and then tacked on a strange additional charge of nearly $4500.

The billing issue affected customers across the country, although the airline hasn’t told CBS13 how many.

Ouch.

This particular incident supposedly occurred on August 3rd.

Southwest had a rather, um, interesting explanation for what went wrong. They said they had “website performance issues.”

That’s kind of like totaling the car and telling your spouse that you had a fender bender.

But, okay; frankly, it seems to me Southwest has been having lots of, um, performance issues lately.

Normally, I’d say Southwest shouldn’t be embarrassed or hang their head in shame. After all, performance issues occasionally happen to everyone. At least that’s what I’ve been told.

But Southwest Airlines’ latest limp noodle has probably got more than a few people — besides myself — wondering if the airline is capable of consistently satisfying their customers anymore.

As for Ms. Cobian, it appears her biggest mistake was using her debit card to purchase her ticket. If she had used a credit card instead, she would have avoided having her bank account cleaned out and she could have just contested the charges.

She also wouldn’t be writing letters to the credit bureaus explaining why her resulting missed credit card payments weren’t her fault.

In the end, this is yet another example why you should almost always choose credit over debit whenever you have the chance.

I said almost.

Respectfully submitted for your consideration, by someone who’s been there before … disappointed, in the Personal Finance Twilight Zone.

Photo Credit: Meltwater

19 comments to Southwest Airlines: Website Horror Stories, Part II

  • Wow! I’ll confess I read the earlier credit vs. debit thing and said, hmmm… I’ll think about it. Of course, as we all know, that’s code for: I’ll conveniently forget about it. :)

    One of those mind tricks we play on ourselves deliberately. Like the gal on a diet ordering grilled chicken and rice, and then adding, “but please bring me the lasagna by mistake.”

    This time I will get the credit card! :)

  • I almost never use my debit card. The only thing I use it for is to take cash out of the ATM! It stinks that so many people are having bad experiences with Southwest. Our local airport only has Southwest and Delta so I have a feeling I’ll be traveling with them one day. I just hope they can get their act back together by the time I take the plunge and by a ticket!

  • Angela

    Don’t tell me, let me guess. “We will reimburse the overcharge with a credit to your SouthWest account which can be applied to future fares.”

  • tracee

    holy cow!!! maybe i should get a credit card just for this reason

    • Len Penzo

      Yes, you should, tracee! Credit cards are a consumer’s best friend! (As long as they know how to use them responsibly, of course.)

  • mc

    Apparently Ms. Cobian forgot to uncheck the checkbox next to, “Charge you 51 times for this flight just to be sure, and also add $4,500 for, you know, just in case?” Boilerplate terms, really. It’s a common mistake, and now a lesson learned I guess. ;D

  • I’ve had problems on the Southwest site too. It doesn’t automatically update your account. You would think that such a large company would have a better user interface. But I can’t beat those cheap fares!
    Chase

  • Lola

    I’ve never actually flown Southwest, mostly because I like to be able to choose my seat. I know there are airlines that charge for this now, but I’ve yet to book with one. I would never, never, never use my debit card for that kind of purchase though! Whether “performance issues” or possible card fraud, the thought of my checking account getting drained is frightening. Over the years, I’ve had several cards get “compromised”, but thankfully the credit card companies I use have excellent fraud departments. Especially Citibank (I know people hate them, but they are VERY pro-active in their fraud protection).

    • Len Penzo

      I love my credit card companies, Lola. They have had my back on several occasions when it came to disputes with uncooperative vendors.

      The Southwest seating model isn’t so bad. I think they’ve done a great job in improving the whole process ever since they began handing out numbered tickets for boarding.

  • I agree using your credit card over debit card. It can help mitigate nightmares like this.

  • This is a warning shot for any company thinking they’ll “build a reputation” and then rely on it for customers. Your reputation takes years to build and seconds to destroy.

  • Len Penzo

    Great point, Joe. Although Southwest has been so good over the years they had a lot of rope available to them — although they are not starting to run out of slack.

  • Guy

    I only keep enough money in my checking accounts in case I need fast cash (I think I have 40$ in both of them). Everything else is in my savings accounts so if someone ever gets my card they can only take out up to 40 bucks. However, if I ever need more money I can just use my phone to transfer it to checking and pull it out.

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