Column: It shouldn’t be that difficult for companies to get it right during a pandemic

It remains astounding that some companies are refusing to show even lifelong customers the most modest flexibility amid a global pandemic that has already killed an estimated 246,000 Americans.

How can it be?

These are hard times, no doubt. It is difficult for companies to earn income. But it seems decidedly unwise to mistreat loyal customers at a time when people need help, and when a little compassion can go a long way toward securing future profits.

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

The Playa Vista resident described herself as a satisfied Southwest customer for over 40 years. What’s more, he called the company his “airline of choice, whenever possible, due to excellent customer service and flexible policy on changing flights.”

Ashton added that she and her husband had used the credit, known as “travel funds” from Southwest, to book a roundtrip flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco to see relatives in early March.

As the coronavirus spread, the couple decided to suspend the flight and take the trip north by car. Ashton has an autoimmune disorder called polymyalgia rheumatica, which makes her more vulnerable to disease. Her husband of 75 years, Bruce, is hypertensive.

Flying didn’t seem prudent to them, considering the whole situation. Ashton knew those travel funds expired in mid-September, but assumed it would be safe to travel by then. “In mid-July, with no end in sight to the pandemic, I understood that we would not fly before the expiration date,” he said.

So he contacted Southwest over the summer and was instructed by a service representative to call back after the September 17 deadline to arrange an extension.

Her husband did just that a few weeks ago. Southwest informed him that no extensions would be given to those benefits. The service representative explained that the airline must “protect the integrity of the processes,” he said. The $ 156 in credit was gone.

I have written about the difficulties some people faced in requesting refunds for air travel, cruises, and hotel reservations that were canceled due to a virtually unique health disaster, or that occurs once in a generation.

One of the most revealing developments involved travel insurance companies keeping people’s money even though the cruises had been canceled.

Needless to say, this is a dire time for the airline business. The four largest US airlines accumulated at least $ 10 billion in combined losses in each of the last two quarters.

The third trimester is usually strong for that activity, because it includes summer trips. But American Airlines reported a quarterly loss of $ 2.4 billion. Southwest lost nearly $ 1.2 billion.

Although operators expect things to improve with vacation travel in the current quarter, they estimate that it will take years for them to recover from the financial blow suffered as a result of the pandemic.

Southwest will begin selling intermediate seats again beginning December 1. Their decision is based on “scientific findings from reliable aviation and medical organizations,” and not a desperate need for cash, they say. “Our top priority remains, and always will be, the safety of our employees and customers,” said the airline’s CEO, Gary Kelly, in a statement.

Airlines note that their air filtration systems reduce the risk of coronavirus. Some health experts warn that not everything is said in that sense.

In any case, Ashton took Kelly at his word. She wrote to him with details about her experience and a courteous request that the airline honor its previous commitment to extend travel credits.

“They won’t lose money,” she commented. “We are not requesting a refund. We just want them to save us a space while the world goes through a catastrophe ”.

“It’s the right thing to do,” he added. “It is an act of humanity.”

In response to his email to Kelly, a senior service representative expressed the company’s “regret” for Ashton’s “continued disappointment.”

“I understand that, like many of our clients, you have had concerns about traveling, and I am saddened to learn that you were unable to use your travel funds before the expiration date,” the representative stated via email.

He also expressed regret at “any confusion” resulting from the summer phone call, in which the airline said the couple should contact them after the expiration to arrange more time.

“Unfortunately, we are still unable to comply with your request to restore past due funds,” the representative said. “We are truly grateful for the loyalty you have shown us over the years. It is always a pleasure to serve you and we look forward to the opportunity to welcome you and Bruce on board soon. ”

How about the kick in the ass you got?

Southwest appreciates Ashton’s decades of loyal patronage and looks forward to selling him more tickets. But no, it won’t show a bit of flexibility amid a global pandemic that has disrupted travel around the world.

Again, this is not a refund. It is about allowing a client to use a credit that he already had and that he has not been able to use because now the circumstances are extraordinary.

For Ashton, it’s not about the money. “It’s about principles.” For me, it’s about companies finally being in a position to act, after many years of talk about how much they value customer loyalty. A spokesperson for Southwest declined to comment when asked about the injustice of terminating a customer’s travel credit during a pandemic.

But after I tried to communicate, an executive called Ashton and told him that his loan will be extended for six months. “Pretty good,” Ashton reflected afterward. “I think they did the right thing,” he said. “Now I feel like I’m not wasting my money.”

I’m glad it worked. But I’m also concerned that it takes so much effort for a company to do the right thing.

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

Those are not mutually exclusive goals. And customers will remember who was there for them when times were tough.

And who wouldn’t?

To read this note in Spanish, click here