Connecting California

Southwest Airlines Is Failing California

Its Flights Are More Expensive and Less Reliable. Is Travel Across This Big State Destined to Be Miserable?

I may have to take back everything bad I ever said about California’s high-speed rail project.

This thought ran through my head as I stood one morning last week at Gate A3 of Burbank airport, enraged and fully engaged in another of my now-frequent battles with Southwest Airlines.

My morning flight to Oakland, where I was giving an afternoon talk, had been canceled without explanation. But Southwest wouldn’t let me on an earlier flight that had room and was still sitting at the gate. The Southwest agent said he couldn’t get me to Oakland before 3 p.m.—which wasn’t reassuring since my talk started at 4. He could get me to San Jose, but wouldn’t offer me compensation for the extra travel time or car I’d have to rent.

When I protested, he told me to call Southwest customer relations in Dallas. But the line there was busy.

I used to think that a $68 billion train project from L.A. to San Francisco didn’t make much sense because the great state of California had Southwest Airlines. For most of my adult life, Southwest has been more reliable in California than any utility. It provided the essential north-south connections in our long, tall state with the downscale charm of a great bus service. It was cheap, on time, and offered constant flights staffed by people who did everything they could to get you to your destination. The airline’s stock symbol, “LUV,” seemed appropriate: Passengers, investors, and communities hoping to attract competition to their airports, and thus lower fares, all loved Southwest in equal measure.

The glory days of Southwest, and of its power to connect the state, may be coming to an end.

As for me, it’s not too great a leap to say that Southwest made it possible for me to do my job. I routinely used it to commute from Southern California to Sacramento or the Bay Area for a day of work–up in the morning, back in the evening, often for less than $100 round-trip. While covering California politics and Governor Schwarzenegger in the early 2000s, Southwest was so good that I often beat the governor, who flew via private jets, to his destination. And when Schwarzenegger’s aides were trying to duck my questions, I could reliably corner them on Southwest planes. (I’ve always loved the open seating policy for two reasons: its democratic spirit and the way it enables journalistic stalking.)

But the glory days of Southwest, and of its power to connect the state, may be coming to an end. Once known for its low fares and high customer satisfaction, the formerly idiosyncratic airline, sadly, is becoming more like its more dysfunctional competitors. Bags get lost, more flights are delayed, fliers are irritated. And prices have risen well above bus-service level. Advance purchase one-way tickets in California are often more than $100 and walk-up fares now approach $250 each way.

Southwest’s on-time performance is now among the worst in the airline business, and last month it canceled more flights than any other American carrier. Southwest’s democracy has atrophied as rapidly as California voter turnout; the airline that once treated us all the same now has different classes of entry, tickets, and customers. And its once simple and generous frequent flier program has become less so.

Most distressing has been the decline of its service culture, which may be connected to labor unrest at the airline. Southwest gate agents and flight attendants who once were empowered to get you on the plane now routinely explain how they can’t help. The gate agent who denied me access to the earlier flight last week explained that he’d love to get me on board, but it was above his head.

Of course, Southwest is a public company and must do what is best for its business. But in California, Southwest’s troubles have left an unmistakable void, and it’s not clear who can fill it. Other major national airlines offer far fewer flights between California destinations and, when you count all the baggage and change fees, are usually more expensive than even today’s more expensive Southwest trips. It’d be nice if Virgin America, headquartered in Burlingame, could step up and reduce our reliance on Texas-based Southwest. Virgin America’s pricing is similar to Southwest’s, but its California flights are limited to Palm Springs, San Diego, LAX, and SFO, the last an airport that time-sensitive travelers must avoid because of the frequent weather delays.

In this context, high-speed rail looks less like an extravagance and more like a necessity, albeit an expensive one with serious funding challenges. Critics of high-speed rail, like yours truly, used to point out that the projected cost of tickets, usually in the $40 to $120 range, wasn’t any cheaper than flying. But with walk-up fares to go from Burbank to Oakland at $223 last week on Southwest, that’s no longer the case. The projected three-hour train travel time between L.A. and San Francisco also doesn’t look as bad given all Southwest’s cancellations and delays. And high-speed rail is less likely to have its schedules altered by bad weather.

There’s a larger point here. California is a big state, and, for reasons of commerce and culture and connection, we need to make it less of an ordeal to get from one place to another. The number of trips between Northern and Southern California by air and by car–15 million a year (about half by each mode) seems awfully low for a state of 38 million people with so many different attractions. But who wants to subject themselves to the misery of Southwest or the 5?

Last week, I did make it to my speech, though it cost me. I flew to San Jose and paid another $100 for a rental car and gas to get to Oakland. And Southwest did manage to get me home late the same night.

But the battle left me scarred. My family and I had been planning to go up to the Bay Area to see my grandmother and uncle this Thanksgiving week. Now we’ll probably stay home.

  • hcat

    You got it. The high speed rail thing was never, for me, about being anti automobile; it was about being anti the airlines. And that is why I voted for it.

  • Todd Loewenstein

    Glad to see you are coming around, Joe. Yes, the price tag of $68B seems high. Those of us that have traveled through Japan, Spain, and the other parts of Europe with high speed rail know how great it is, especially for reliably getting you there and dropping you off in the middle of the city. In addition, how much are we going to spend on airport expansion, freeways, etc, over the next 45-50 years? Likely a lot.


    A no-brainer. Air travel will always be highly limited and will never carry the traffic that rail can. And, it is a hell of a lot more comfortable.

  • Leslie Nope

    Glad you had a personal epiphany. I just drove the 5 this week and a few weeks before that. its currently incapable of handling he amount of traffic that uses it on a regular basis, even less capable of handling any event or holiday travel week. We need HSR, or we need four more additional lanes connecting the great metropolitan regions of our state.

  • Crickett Hoffman

    Welcome aboard. I fell in love with HSR when I could go from London to Paris in less time on the train than on a plane. Also, it took you this long to figure out that Southwest is the equivalent of a Grayhound bus? Rickety planes that still have ashtrays and a surly staff. I gave up on Southwest years ago.

    Just wait until you sit back, with leg room, a paper and a chardonnay and get to watch the scenery fly by. Arriving relaxed and ready to do what you need to do. Opposed to arriving harassed, sore, achy and needing a long nap. You’ll feel spoiled with HSR.

  • Kuliouou

    I flew Southwest last June between Burbank and Sacramento, advance purchase at $264 round-trip. Both flights were on time. I can’t complain about the service, but that said, most major California airports are running at or near capacity. Runways, not the number of gates, are the primary determinant of airport capacity, and there is little if any room to expand the number of runways at these airports. High speed rail was never meant to supplant alternatives means of intrastate transportation, but rather as a supplement to existing systems. It will work, given the opportunity. CA residents need to give it a chance.

  • Kennedy Higdon

    I read your article a few days ago, and thought you must have just had an isolated bad experience. I spend at least 50% of my time on the road, and primarily use American. I supplement with Southwest for some of the western US trips from Burbank, so I have quite a bit of experience with them as well.

    Fast forward to this week, where I used Southwest for a quick over-nighter to Boise for a meeting. I have to say that these past few days were the single worst flying experience I’ve had in years. Not a single leg of the 4-leg trip went as planned. In fact, multiple flights and subsequent reschedules were canceled. I’ve never had a harder time getting home and almost resorted to renting a car and making the drive. At least, in this case, I’d be “in the driver’s seat”, so to speak. It was a comedy of errors, the likes of which I never imagined from Southwest Airlines….

  • raflw

    Even if you fly Southwest, you still have to check in for your flight early enough to go through TSA. If you have to check a bag, add time for that, too. So at 2.5 to 3 hours for the train, the time benefit of flying isn’t that great. And that’s when the flight goes as scheduled.
    I’ve really enjoyed riding the train in Italy when we vacation. I was amazed that even the local train service ran at 90mph! Two years previous, we’d ridden the mid-highspeed train (125mph, I think) and it was very smooth and comfortable.
    If we had real rail options here, I think folks would embrace the option.