AOL Mystery Flyer: Southwest Airlines Report Card

No hot food, no pillows and blankets, and on some flights, no complimentary water. What's left? The one thing that can turn a long, meal-less coach flight from an ordeal to a joyride is...friendliness: helpful airline personnel and flight attendants with a positive attitude.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be traveling coast-to-coast on ten of our country's busiest airlines as AOL's Mystery Flyer. And I'll be looking to answer one really important question: Is there a price for nice?

Read on to see how Southwest Airlines scored on Tuesday morning's flight from Portland to Chicago Midway:

How It Works:

After each of the ten flights I'm taking over the coming weeks, I'll judge the airlines on six areas of customer service, using a scale of one to five. My goal along the way is to be an average passenger with normal travel requests and questions. In no way am I going to bother flight attendants and airline personnel with unusual demands; I know these are very busy people. I'm not looking to push airline staff to the limit, but simply to judge their friendliness during the most common travel interactions faced by the flying public on a routine flight.

Here's how to decipher my 1-5 rating system:

1/5 means a flat out rude reaction to my requests
2/5 means an unfriendly reaction, although not necessarily rude
3/5 means a neutral reaction to my requests
4/5 means a friendly reaction with a smile
5/5 means friendly customer service that goes that extra distance
1. Operator's response to pre-flight requests (such as a seat change) when I called the airline's toll-free number the day of departure.
5/5: I called the airline the night before my departure and asked if it was possible to request an aisle seat. The agent explained Southwest's open seating system and advised me to check in online to get the most favorable boarding zone for securing an aisle seat. When I explained that I did not have access to Internet, she said, very pleasantly: "Well, let me take care of that for you."

She then checked me in and told me that my boarding zone would be B24. When I asked if that position was early enough in the boarding process that overhead bin space would still be available for my carry-on, she said there were several boarding zones after mine, so space shouldn't be a problem. I went on to ask about snacks and drinks on board (both complimentary), and she answered in a friendly and patient manner.

2. Friendliness of the ticketing agent during the check-in process at the airport.
4/5: When I arrived at the Portland airport, I noticed that Southwest Airlines seemed to have only self-serve kiosks for checking in. Although I planned to carry on my bag, I stood in the line for checked baggage so I might have an opportunity to interact with an agent. I used my credit card to begin the check-in process, and when the computer asked how many bags I wanted to check, I told an agent nearby that I did not plan to check a bag and asked if it was still okay to use this kiosk. She said it was fine and came out from behind the counter to look at my screen, pushing a few buttons to hurry the process along. She appeared rushed, and I felt a little hurried; but when I asked which boarding zone I was in, the agent picked up my ticket and explained that as there were two boarding zones after mine, I should be fine for overhead bin space.

3. Friendliness of the gate agent when I request a seat change prior to departure.
5/5: Since Southwest does not have assigned seating, it was not possible to request a seat change. When I arrived at the gate, the A zone was already standing in line to board, and the only agent I could interact with was already busy taking passengers' tickets and ushering them on to the plane. As no one was staffing the Southwest counter, my only chance to interact pre-flight at the gate was when my zone was called. The flight was full and the agent was obviously trying to expedite the boarding process, but I asked her a question to see if she would be friendly despite the rush. Should I buy something at a nearby kiosk or would there be drinks and snacks onboard? She replied, with no sign of frustration at my inconveniently-timed question, that both would be available and complimentary on the flight.

4. Friendliness of flight attendants to my requests for a blanket, an extra beverage and anything else I might need during the flight.
5/5: I was welcomed on board with a very warm smile by the flight attendant. I asked if she could throw away my coffee cup, since I would need both hands to maneuver my bag into the overhead bin; she obliged this request with a smile.

Soon after we departed, I disturbed my Scrabble-playing row-mates, got up from my window seat and headed to the back of the plane. The FAs had already come around to take our drink orders (with big, friendly smiles all around), and they were now at the rear galley, preparing the drink trays. I said I had a bit of a cough (true) and asked for a glass of water; they smiled, and one FA took a glass from a tray and handed it to me.

When I made my first trip to the lavatory, the FAs were once again busy with drinks, chatting about a relative who was ill as they worked. I interrupted again, this time to ask how to get to Chicago O'Hare once we arrived at Midway. They were both quick to give me advice: one recommended the shuttle, the other suggested the train as an option. It was just like asking friends for advice, they were that friendly, sharing anecdotes of their own experiences with the shuttle and the train. I thanked them profusely and with genuine feeling; it was so nice not to feel like a bother while getting travel advice I really needed.

Later, when I returned to the lavatory, one of the FAs asked where I was headed that I needed to get to O'Hare. She then suggested a few restaurants in both airports, since the travel time to O'Hare was about an hour and I'd probably want to eat. They also offered me another beverage. After we landed, and as I was leaving the plane, one FA looked up from cleaning the seat rows to wish me luck with getting to O'Hare on time.

5. Friendliness of general interactions between airline personnel and other passengers that I observed during my travels.
5/5: The Southwest FAs were some of the most likeable I have experienced. There was nothing aloof or disinterested in their demeanor, yet they were entirely professional. And all three FAs were full of smiles for the passengers as they carried out their duties throughout the flight. I kept thinking that they actually liked their jobs. When the FAs were in the aisle and a passenger needed to pass (even while they were busy delivering snacks or drinks), they acknowledged the passenger's presence, got out of the way, and smiled and ushered them past.

At one point, a couple in the row in front of mine became worried about a tight half-hour connection they had to make in Chicago. When the FA came through to take more drink orders, the couple explained their itinerary to her in excruciatingly slow detail: fretting about how they had booked their ticket, asking if theirs was a legitimate connection, and so on.

The FA listened patiently with a concerned look, then explained that they would be fine, as we were due in on time. She let them know at which gate we would be arriving, and said that as we got closer to landing, she would radio ahead to find out their departure gate for the Baltimore flight. The couple seemed relieved and thanked her, saying they felt better; she smiled and said "No problem."

When she offered me another drink, I asked if I could have a pillow or blanket. She was apologetic as she explained they no longer had those, but said she would ask the pilot to turn up the heat, as she, too, had noticed that it was chilly. Just a lot of caring going around.

6. Friendliness of gate agent upon arrival when I ask for help finding a connecting flight or the baggage claim.
4/5: When I deplaned at Midway, the terminal was busier than a termite mound. As I did not see any agents at the gate directing passengers to connecting flights, I approached an agent at a nearby Southwest desk. No one was waiting in line, although the agent was busy doing something with a luggage tag. I asked her where to find the shuttle to O'Hare; she stopped what she was doing to direct me down the hall and to the exit near baggage claim, where I would find the shuttle. She didn't smile, but she was friendly and helpful, and that was all I really needed.

My journey isn't over yet. Follow me on Twitter as I go undercover to see how America's most popular airlines rate when it comes to service in the sky. Questions? Comments? Thoughts? Join the conversation by ending your tweet with #spyinthesky
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