A No-Frills Convention?
A recent experience set me to thinking about our cooperative work as Southern Baptists.
A few nights ago our local television news program announced that Dallas-based Southwest Airlines was inaugurating service to Boston’s Logan International Airport from Love Field. It is the kind of story that has grown commonplace in Dallas, from where Southwest’s empire continues to expand, gobbling up routes from lesser competitors. At the conclusion of the story, the reporter employed a phrase that really caught my attention: She referred to Southwest as “The no-frills airline.”
In some quarters, I’m sure that the phrase “no-frills airline” is bandied about as an insult toward companies like Southwest. It subtly diminishes Southwest’s loyal customer base as those who can’t afford the frills. It fends off comparisons by placing Southwest into a different category—other airlines’ profitability and timeliness and customer service should be compared with other “frills” carriers, and not with those in the wholly separate “no-frills” class.
My time spent flying commercially has gone very disproportionately to Southwest Airlines. I’ve flown a little on now-defunct Piedmont Airlines; some on US Airways; some on ASA; some on Northwest; some on Delta; some on ValuJet; some on regional carriers Lone Star, Big Sky, and Mesa; and a fair amount on the other Dallas-based carrier, American Airlines. I’ve flown on Southwest Airlines more than I’ve flown on all of those other airlines combined. My reasons for flying on Southwest mostly have to do with the cost (probably like your reasons, if you’ve flown Southwest a lot). I would be willing to consider paying more if I had any reasonable expectation that I would be getting something valuable in return. Nevertheless, my flying experience does include time spent on both “frills-included” and “no-frills” airlines.
Having seen both sides, I sometimes find myself wondering what the frills are.
The Good Leg
Consider, for example, my most recent flying experience with American Airlines. We left from DFW airport bound for Heathrow on a beautiful Boeing 777 airplane in the American Airlines livery. I took my seat back in row 36. When I sat down, I noticed two things. First, I saw that every seat had its own little TV screen (the 737s in the Southwest Airlines fleet don't have that). Second, I saw that the TV screen for my seat wasn't working.
That's no big deal for me—a non-functioning TV screen. Like I said, I never have my own TV screen when I fly. Certainly I'm not some spoiled person who has to have a TV screen in order to suffer through a flight with hoi polloi. Nevertheless, as we wended our way over the North Atlantic, I came to discover some nasty side-effects of my broken TV. The only way to turn on the light is with the TV controller, so there go my plans to read on the trip across the Atlantic. The only way to summon a flight attendant is with the TV controller, so I hope I don't need anything. The only way to listen to the instructions for filling out my British Customs form (which I'll now have to do in the dark) is on the TV, so I hope that I guess correctly.
Mine was one of a block of about 15 seats that had non-functioning TVs. Several other passengers requested from the flight attendants that they fix the TVs (I did not). Flight attendants promised several times that they simply needed to go up front and reset the units. “Any minute now…,” you know. We landed in London eight hours later with the TVs still not functioning.
That was the good leg of the trip. Nothing but a few minor inconveniences.
After a wonderful 10 days of mission work in London, we boarded American Airlines 87 bound for Chicago's O'Hare Airport. The direct flight to Dallas (#51) had been full when we booked our travel, so we were stuck with the connection at ORD. Flight 87 departed late while American found standbys to fill empty seats and arrived late in Chicago, but we had planned enough time between the flights to leave us a little bit of breathing room. Twenty minutes late, we disembarked our second American Airlines 777 of the voyage.
Again, coincidentally, we had flown in row 36 (the TVs worked this time). American's 777s are outfitted with 42 rows, so we were pretty much in the back of the airplane. Consequently, we were pretty much the last people off the airplane and the last people in line at Passport Control. Ours was not a speedy trip past the CBP personnel—by the time we had cleared passport control and had moved to the baggage carousel, flight 87 had been on the ground for a full 40 minutes.
And yet in all of that time, not one of our flight's bags had arrived yet.
That's right: The entire 777 airplane (which was almost entirely full) had disembarked, walked to Customs, cleared Passport Control, and had found a perch encircling the carousel to await the arrival of their bags, and the baggage handlers in all of that time had not managed to deliver a single bag from the belly of the airplane. We waited ten more minutes for the bags to arrive, and then the first of them came.
From our luck so far, you can guess by now where our bags came in the sequence of those from our flight, can't you? All three of our bags came in the final ten bags to be unloaded into the carousel. Yikes!
By now, I was worried. It was 1:58 PM. Our connecting flight to DFW was scheduled for departure at 2:20 PM. We still had to re-check our bags and make our way to a different terminal in order to make it to our Dallas-bound flight. We ran…RAN…with our bags to the re-check agent. As we got into line, we breathlessly told the agent: "We've got to hurry; we're booked connecting onto flight 2331 and it leaves in just twenty minutes!"
"Actually," she said, "It just left three minutes ago."
As it turns out, here's what happened. American Airlines booked us on a connecting itinerary from Heathrow to DFW that included a tight connection from flight 87 to flight 2331. Then, they decided to change the time of flight 2331. They pulled it forward fifteen minutes from 2:20 to 2:05, all without bothering to tell us. They claim that they tried to email us. I have several other emails from American Airlines, but I never got that one. My wife never got this email either. We had provided American Airlines with telephone numbers, but they never tried to contact us. No ticketing agent at the gate ever bothered to mention, "By the way, do you realize that your home-bound itinerary is now an impossibility since we've changed the time of your connecting flight?" No kindly agent at Chicago met us when we disembarked AA87 to say, "You've only got a few minutes to make your flight to Dallas! Let us do everything we can to help you make it home!" Then, after changing the flight time, they sent the flight away even earlier than the scheduled time, again, all without telling us.
Well that's a major breach of faith and inconvenience, but it shouldn't be an insurmountable problem, right? Because DFW is a major hub for American Airlines. American's international headquarters is at DFW. There are going to be a lot of AA flights to Dallas, right?
Is That Dell Griffith Over There?
And there were. There were six of them, in fact. All overbooked. American Airlines informed us that they were not going to get us to DFW. We conceded the fact (with a smile…in fact, the ticket agent remarked in surprise that we were taking it all so cheerfully) and offered a Plan B—could American Airlines at least get us to Houston? After several minutes of frantic computer work (we’re thankful for that guy in Chicago), he was able to book us from Chicago to Miami to Houston, where my in-laws agreed to pick us up at the airport a full 25 hours after we first set out on our journey (we supposed) home.
Our flight to Miami was yet another Boeing 777, so we had no problem finding our way to the very last row of seats. Tracy grew up near Miami, where her Dad worked for an airline, so she knows something about the local layout. One of the terminals at the airport is apparently under construction at present, so our flight received a gate assignment at “the old Pan-Am terminal.” This portion of Concourse E sits out as a remote island on the tarmac, separated from the remainder of the facilities.
The Captain taxied our jet up to the gate and allowed an automatic parking device to place us at the gate. If you’ve flown, you know the drill. The engines shut down. The passengers all stand up. The overhead bins all open. The lines in the aisles form and then wait for the door to open. We waited…and waited…and waited.
Finally, the loudspeakers broke the silent anticipation with the Captain’s voice. The automatic parking device had failed. The ramp couldn’t connect to the airplane successfully. We might have to wait while they get a tug to drive over, mate up with the 777, and reposition the airplane. And we did have to wait for precisely that.
We offloaded the jet and marched out into the now-dark-and-gated terminal shops of an airport that had already seen its bedtime come and go. As I mentioned before, our island of gates was separated from the other terminals (including our connecting flight to Houston). The only way off our island was a train (Floridians love a monorail), and our throng from Chicago pressed into the boarding area for that train.
The first group embarked upon the train ride. The doors closed. The lights flashed. The time expired. The doors opened again. The first group of people were still there, staring right back at us. The train was broken.
By this time, we were laughing instead of crying. I was tweeting the whole episode as it occurred. References to Steve Martin and John Candy in “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” were spreading like wildfire.
The powers-that-be sent over a bus filled with outbound passengers for another red-eye flight. Our pilot and flight attendants begged the bus to take us back to the main terminal with them on their return. They refused: “We’re going to fix the train!” And eventually they did so, but it is really difficult to see why they couldn’t allow a few connecting passengers at the very least to ride an empty bus on a trip that it had to make anyway.
We did finally make it over on the train. We did finally catch the 737 to Houston Intercontinental. We did finally make our way overland from Houston back to Farmersville. We did have all of our belongings with us when we got there. The trip from Heathrow to home finally did in fact succeed.
But nothing about it felt “frilly.”
Along the way we never grumbled, never spoke a cross word, and never took out our frustration upon any American Airlines employee. Upon our arrival at home, friends and family said, “You really should contact American Airlines. They should give you a free flight or something.”
I decided that I would contact the airline. After all, it had been a pretty dreadful experience. If nothing else, they at least ought to get feedback—an appraisal of their performance from someone affected but not ill-tempered. Thus I first determined to tell my story. I looked for a phone number to call Customer Service for American Airlines. I found none. I called the main number and had the most delightful conversation with a computer (such a friendly android voice it had), but after repeated tries I could not convince it to allow me to speak with a person.
Finally, I found an email form by which I could tell of our disappointing experience. The form is carefully constructed to prevent you from having anyone’s actual email address at American Airlines, mind you. The length of what you can send them is carefully limited as well.
I decided that I should ask for something very modest. No free round trip tickets to Hawaii. No all-expense weekends at the Waldorf-Astoria. Instead, I decided to ask for something that I had seen the airlines give away to people before just for signing up for a program or whatever. So I asked American Airlines to give us double AAdvantage miles for the trip. That wouldn’t add up to enough miles for us actually to upgrade a flight or attain some “elite” status with American. The only way that this “gift” would be valuable to us at all or would cost American Airlines a penny would be if we came back to American Airlines as a continuing customer. It seemed to me the perfect request, since it involved both a concession on American’s part and a commitment on our part to fly American Airlines again several more times. A brief glance at my past frequent-flyer history with American Airlines would immediately reveal that there has never been a period in my life when I have flown with American enough for me to have used these miles to do anything—my request, if valuable or costly at all, would require me to become a far better customer to American Airlines than I have ever been in my life. They really could have incentivized me to start a long-term relationship with American Airlines, but they squandered that opportunity.
In three rounds of very polite back-and-forths, the folks at American Airlines flatly refused my request. They also stridently maintained that none of this—their late flight from Heathrow, their sluggish baggage handling in Chicago, their unilateral changing of my flight time—none of this was actually their fault at all. With regard to their changing of our flight time, they told us that they just have to do this sometimes. In other words, they do not regard this is an exception, but as a part of the range of things that we should expect possibly to happen when we fly with American Airlines—your flight just might leave thirty minutes earlier than they told you. They said all of this with a refined niceness likely washed through the advertising and legal departments, and the conversation was very pleasant—utterly unsatisfying, but pleasant. And in the end, neither side got what they should have wanted: I didn’t receive double miles for the trip, and American Airlines certainly received no intention on my part to purchase future tickets from them. I hear that British Airways has excellent customer service. If I make the two trips to London that are possible next year, I'll soon find out about British Airways's service, I promise you.
The sad part of it all is that American Airlines has the best pilots in the world, the best flight attendants in the world, and every opportunity to succeed. Unfortunately, these people have to serve in a system (maybe it's the fault of management?) that offsets their incredible competence and conscientiousness by its disregard for the passenger.
Frills Up and Down My Spine?
My travels with Southwest Airlines may not feature many frills, but my bags always fly free, the flights dependably depart on time and arrive on time, and I am always pleased to receive precisely what I bargained for when I bought the tickets. American Airlines has obviously worked hard to train their staff to put a friendly face before the customers. We never had any unpleasant experience with any human representative of American Airlines. Also, American Airlines offers first-class seats (that we can’t afford), airport lounges filled with liquor (that we don’t drink), “platinum elite” perks (like getting to walk into the airplane early), and things like that. Southwest Airlines offers none of these things, focusing instead on having airplanes that get you where you want to go safely and on-time. Those are the "frills" that give me happy shivers about an airline. There's a reason why Southwest Airlines is perpetually profitable and American Airlines is not. Success comes from doing the main thing reliably well.
Before I end my airline travel narrative, I want to say that I, too, enjoy and embrace the sentiments articulated by the comedian Louis CK on the YouTube video "Everything's Amazing; Nobody's Happy." The point is not that our life was ruined by American Airlines. We went to London and back in a matter of less than two days traveling time. That truly is amazing. The point is simply that American Airlines should get back to a focus on that—restoring a reliable travel infrastructure to use the miracle of flight to get people from point A to point B—taking responsibility for that service and focusing less on the so-called frills. Flight is a miracle that a lot of companies sell. Some do it better than others. I get to make choices when I fly. American Airlines may very well know why I fly, but that's not what I need from them. I know why I fly; I need someone who knows how to make that flight happen safely and on-time with minimum hassle.
A No-Frills Convention!
I believe there is a parable in this whole experience for us Southern Baptists, both in Texas and beyond, and that's my point in writing. In our adolescence, I see the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention as a “no-frills” cooperative body, which I celebrate. A lot of the programs and employees and institutions that other denominations or cooperative bodies have, we don’t have. We do, however, have a great and efficient system for linking congregations to grow healthier themselves while planting other churches in Texas, in North America, and around the globe. I like that. I don’t want the “frills”; I want the dependable focus on the main thing. Fellow SBTCers, let's be so very careful as our convention grows older not to mess that up.
On the national scale, as our North American Mission Board envisions another chapter in its existence and as our Task Force imagines the best future for all of our Southern Baptist Convention entities, I want to encourage them to focus less upon public relations and less upon ancillary frills. First and foremost, let us have a Southern Baptist Convention that knows what the basics are and accomplishes them predictably and satisfactorily.