Help me WalletPop: Southwest Airlines lost my ticket and charged me twice

Dear WalletPop:

On Oct. 8, Karl and I checked into our Southwest flight to Vegas. The man at the counter was totally distracted -- carrying on a conversation with another employee behind the counter. I really didn't think much of it at the time but ... he carelessly placed our tickets back on the counter and continued his conversation. I picked up the tickets and noticed that we ONLY had a boarding pass now.

We originally had handed him lavender oaktag tickets we received in the mail three weeks before, and those tickets were for our flight to Vegas as well as our return trip. When he handed us back a plain-paper boarding pass, I asked if that was all we needed. He stopped his conversation mid-sentence and told us we were free to proceed.

On Oct. 12, Karl and I arrived at McCarren airport in Vegas to return home on our scheduled flight. Southwest personnel directed us to check in electronically and then see a counter employee to check our bags. Karl scanned his credit card at the electronic kiosk as a form of identification. The computer recognized him and asked for either a flight number or a confirmation number. Having no tickets, we hit a dead end at the kiosk and proceeded to the counter.

The counter employee ...smiled completely condescendingly and said, "You have to buy new tickets." We explained that we had no tickets and she told us to check our luggage, but there was no way we were getting onto the flight without tickets, and if we can't produce them , we had to rebuy.

I asked why. We are obviously Karl and Suzie Coughlin, and she has it in her system that Karl and Suzie Coughlin are scheduled to board, and Karl and Suzie Coughlin haven't checked in yet, can't we just get onto our flight?

She called us irresponsible and told us that she was going to offer us tickets at a discounted price, but since we won't just stand there quietly she is going to charge us full price. I said, "So, now you're taking even MORE money than you have to... out of SPITE?!" She told me to keep quiet or she would not let us on Southwest flight at all. She said she deals with this about four times a day and nothing we can do or say is going to change the situation, and I should be thanking her for trying to help us.

She refused to get a supervisor. People were staring at us. I was humiliated. I was angry. I was treated more poorly than I have in my entire life, by someone in customer service. I was incredulous. I told her very calmly that I needed a little further explanation on the matter but did not want to be accused of being rude-mean-irresponsible, but I needed to know why I was repurchasing my own tickets.

The real kicker for me was when she mentioned (repeatedly) that she deals with this four times a day. So, what is that, some kind of excuse for being completely incompassionate to the fact that I have a home to get to?

Suzie Coughlin
Sterling, Va.

Dear Suzie,

No one in the customer service business should talk down to customers like that -- if they want to keep customers coming their way and keep their jobs. Working an airline counter can be pretty stressful, and typically Southwest agents are a bit better than most in terms of holding it together.

You also make a pretty good case for e-tickets, which you can't really lose. Even if you lose your itinerary, you can just go to an airport Internet kiosk and print out a new one.

Regardless, from the way you described the incident at the airport with the clerk after you realized you didn't have your ticket you're deserving of comparison -- not a lecture nor an insult.

So, I presented your situation to Southwest to see what they thought. Here is their response:

"I was saddened to learn that your vacation ended on a sour note, especially considering that you were traveling for a special occasion...

"We retrieved our flight records and discovered that Coupon One of your paper tickets for Flight #2028 were attached to your boarding passes. In fact, you would not have been permitted to board the flight without the tickets. When a boarding pass is scanned for a Customer traveling on a paper ticket, the Operations Agent's computer will prompt him/her to verify that the correct ticket is attached, and the Agent must then clear the prompt on the computer prior to allowing the Customer to board.

"That said, your tickets for your return flight on October 12 were not collected at the departure gate, and we also confirmed that they were not being held in the will call box, which is what would have happened had our Washington Dulles (IAD) Employee accidentally not returned them to you. Furthermore, there are no remarks in your reservation to indicate that our IAD Employee had taken your return tickets in error, as is also standard practice. Regardless of what happened to your return flight tickets, we regret your impression that our IAD Employee was distracted while checking in you and your husband. We humbly acknowledge the importance of our Employees maintaining focus while interacting with our Customers."

I need to interject for a moment. It does seem that Southwest is making a great leap that "standard practice" actually occurred -- which might not be the case based on just how disinterested in his job the employee seemed to be that day.

"Before I delve into the specifics of your experience in Las Vegas, it's important to note that, according to our Contract of Carriage (available on, 'When a passenger loses his or her ticket or a portion of his or her ticket, the passenger will be required to purchase another ticket, at the fare at which the ticket or portion thereof was originally purchased, before transportation will be furnished between the points covered by the lost ticket. Carrier will not replace or refund lost tickets.' These terms and conditions are also available for review on the Southwest Airlines Vacations web site and on the paper tickets you were issued."

OK. They've got you on that one -- except if they were the ones who lost them. But when people used to use paper tickets on a regular basis -- they are a rarity these days -- people were reminded they are like currency and should be treated as such.

"In accordance with the terms and conditions noted above, our Las Vegas Customer Service Agent correctly followed our procedures by requesting that you and your husband purchase new tickets. However, that does not excuse the manner in which you describe her as having addressed you. The remarks you said she made were unnecessary, and we sincerely apologize for anything she said that upset you and your husband. As you might imagine, our Employees are expected to be friendly, helpful, and courteous to all Customers who are kind enough to grant us their business."

OK, there's the apology. It comes with an admonition first that they right and you're not -- but it is an apology.

"Since you and your husband purchased two tickets each for Flight #1023, I have processed a refund of your second ticket purchase (a total of $301.20) "

There is no more sincere a form of a customer's value than returning money. So, props to Southwest for promising to give these folks back their cash.

That leaves it to Suzie. How does she feel about it?

"I have mixed feelings. I'm glad I'm getting my money back, but I feel like Southwest just had to get one more jab in," she said. "We'll see if I get the check. Hopefully they still have my address, maybe they'll lose that, too."

And, in fairness, Suzie got in her one last jab. Hopefully, the check will actually show up and soon.
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