Southwest Unnecessarily Strands 175 in Cuba for 22 Hours
On Saturday, August 19, 2017, Southwest Airlines stranded 175 passengers for 22 hours in the Havana airport but sent their crew safely on their way to the US just four hours after the initial departure time. Southwest did not provide its passengers water for five hours after they were stranded despite numerous requests by passengers, most of whom had changed their Cuban currency back to dollars hours earlier, before going through security at the hot, barely air conditioned airport. Water was only provided after a passenger was detained by Cuban security because he asked, on behalf of dozens of other passengers, why water was not being provided (see video below).
Having passengers detained or arrested for peacefully trying to avoid dehydration after a five hour delay in a hot airport is pretty shocking. But over the course of the entire 22 hour ordeal, a very clear pattern became evident to the 175 passengers of Flight 3923: without a single employee in Cuba, and with poorly trained contractors with little experience, leadership ability, authority, or communication with the head office, Southwest Airlines has no ability to provide safe international operations if anything at all goes wrong.
In this case, it only took one problem to throw Southwest’s almost non-existent international operations into chaos: the air conditioning stopped working on a plane.
Flight 3923 was scheduled to leave Havana for Fort Lauderdale at 2:30 pm August 19. The airplane’s air conditioning system was not working as the plane was boarded, and temperatures in the plane rose as boarding was completed but the plane remained at the gate (actually a rolling staircase 100 feet from the terminal). The plane remained in place, fully boarded, for thirty minutes while the interior temperature reached 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Then the pilot announced that “Cuban Immigration is requiring us to take everyone off the plane due to the non-functional air conditioning.” The unlikelihood that the Cuban government would care one bit about air conditioning is clear to anyone that has visited Cuba. In any case, everyone was removed from the plane and walked back to the terminal, which was about 80 degrees.
In the US, Southwest gate personnel would have quickly made an announcement with an apology, followed by updates every so often. After all, virtually every passenger on the flight had a connection in Fort Lauderdale, and a delay of more than hour would cause a large and increasing number of passengers to miss their flights. But the sole Southwest contractor at provided no information – for more than an hour. For most of that hour, she was not anywhere to be found, because she left the gate area about ten minutes after the passengers had disembarked the plane. Several passengers tried in vain to locate Flight 3923’s crew, since those were the only actual Southwest employees in Havana. About an hour later, a United passenger said the Southwest crew was in the first class lounge, so several passengers went there, only to be turned away at the door because Southwest passengers are not eligible to enter.
Many customers were thirsty and hungry by now, but only those with Cuban cash could purchase food or water from the small snack stand, since most passengers had exchanged their Cuban money back to US Dollars before going through security two hours earlier. Customers had asked the Southwest contractor if water could be provided for those that had no money, but were told it was “not possible”, before she left the boarding area and exited through security, where passengers could no longer speak with her. Other than the one or two Southwest contractors, who were nowhere to be found (they were outside security again where the passengers could not get to them), there was no way for most passengers to communicate with the outside world: the small number of “wifi access cards” which had been available at a gift shop had sold out, and there is literally no way to get on the internet in Cuba other than wifi, and all wifi is sold as wifi cards which can only be purchased with cash (credit cards cannot be used in Cuba, even for wifi). Not knowing the wifi cards would sell out, most of the people who bought wifi cards had used them up quickly (they were good for 60 minutes) calling relatives.
About 5:30 pm, two Southwest contractors came into the boarding area and announced over the PA system that Flight 3923 passengers would be placed onto a plane that would be arriving 30 minutes later and which had been scheduled to return to Tampa (Flight 3953). The passengers cheered and awaited that plane. When it was time to board an hour later, however, the Southwest contractor announced that the plane would not be taking the stranded passengers after all – and asked the Tampa customers to line up instead. That was hard news for the passengers of Flight 3923 who had been at the airport for seven hours, but it was even harder when someone yelled “hey, they’re taking our crew!” and pointed to the exit door. Sure enough, Southwest was evacuating the crew of Flight 3923, stranding the passengers as well as the useless broken plane which by then had been towed to a remote parking area. A passenger took a video of the Flight 3923 crew leaving them behind and walking toward the Tampa-bound Flight 3953 a few minutes before 7 pm:
As soon as the plane originally promised to the stranded passengers departed with their crew, the reality of being stuck overnight in Cuba began to sink in. However, no Southwest employee could be found (remember, the only Southwest employees in Cuba were the crew, and they had been evacuated minutes earlier), and the only Southwest contractor in the boarding area exited the gate a few minutes later, leaving a long line of passengers who were waiting to ask her questions, since no further PA announcements had been made since they boarded the flight to Tampa. Again, the 175 passengers were left alone, with no information, and in most cases no way to communicate to their friends and relatives waiting to pick them up in Fort Lauderdale with no idea there was a problem with the flight. A few minutes later, one of the passengers stood up and yelled to the other passengers that he had just gotten a message on his phone from Southwest that the flight had been cancelled, with no further information. There was an uproar but there was no one to talk to for more information.
At this point – in fact, before the decision was made to cancel a flight and an announcement was made, a responsible airline with competent local employees would have told the 175 stranded passengers what to expect next. They would have said that there is no longer a way of getting you out tonight and so we are putting you up in a hotel, and providing meal vouchers, etc. Or, if an airline were less organized, they might just say “we are working on alternate arrangements, including putting you all up in a local hotel with meal vouchers, and will provide additional information or an update in the next fifteen minutes” and then provided better information ASAP. But in fact, Southwest’s Cuban contract workers again preferred to stay as far away from the passengers as possible, and on the rare occasions when they dared to enter the boarding area, almost never made a PA announcement but instead talked individually to people who were still lined up at the boarding gate trying to get information. Of course, they all had the same questions, and so dealing with passengers in this manner was totally ineffective. in addition, the Cuban contractors preferred dealing with Cuban passengers, and doing so in Spanish, and those passengers continually cut in front of the line to get their information.
In fact passengers were not advised of food voucher or hotel accomodations for four full hours after the flight was cancelled. In other words, the first meal provided by Southwest to its passengers who had arrived at Havana airport before lunch was not even announced until 10 pm (ultimately, a dry and chewy ham sandwich and water bottle was delivered to passengers’ hotel rooms at midnight). Providing a meal in this situation is required by law – but doing so five hours after they knew they had to? And 14 hours after the passengers had arrived at the airport for a lunchtime flight? That is due to Southwest’s lack of local infrastructure, competent employees, communication, and judgment.
But even worse than the delay in the meal Southwest provided was the delay in making hotel accommodations, also required by US federal law (see Article). Had Southwest made hotel reservations at or before 7 pm, the time they finally cancelled the 2:30 pm flight, the passengers could have been at the hotel at a reasonable hour and therefore had a good night’s sleep. By waiting until 10pm to make those arrangements (and getting passengers to the hotel around 11pm), they caused passengers to add a sleepless night to an already stressful and unnecessary ordeal, because passengers were told at 10pm that they would be placed on an outbound flight the next morning at 8:45 am, meaning they would need to wake up around 6am.
The Southwest contractor at the boarding gate, in the second of the only two PA announcements they made over the entire eight hour period after the passengers had disembarked from the broken 105 degree airplane, had told passengers that they would be taken to the hotel in a bus outside the baggage claim, and that the bus would return to the hotel for a 7am sharp departure the following morning for the 8:45 am rescheduled flight. Passengers began lining up the next morning (August 20) at 6:30 am, and by 7:00 all 175 passengers were waiting in the lobby – but no bus had arrived.
The bus finally arrived more than 45 later than scheduled, at 7:30. And of course, there was no communication of any kind with any one of the 175 passengers or the hotel telling them that the bus would be late, or whether it would come at all. No Southwest employee or contractor ever went to the hotel at any time while the passengers were there. You might imagine that passengers who had been ignored and stranded for 19 hours already with almost no communication at all, at this point truly wondered if or when the bus would ever come – and there was literally no one the passengers could call. At least one passenger called Southwest using wifi calling, and could find no one in customer service who knew anything about the bus or had any way of calling anyone else who could help. Yet another example of how Southwest Airlines has no capacity to offer efficient or safe international operations in the event anything at all goes wrong. The passengers once again were entirely on their own.
The moment the passengers arrived at the terminal (and of course had to line up yet again at the ticket counter and go through ticketing, customs and security again), the monitor already indicated that the rescheduled flight was not on time, and was now scheduled for an 10:45 am departure. The contractors manning the Southwest ticket counter did not know why the flight was delayed or if was really expected to arrive in time for a 10:45 am departure. As we found out later, the flight hadn’t even left Florida yet, but the contractors at the ticket counter couldn’t even answer the question “is the plane here yet?”.
Many passengers, having learned a hard lesson the previous day, swarmed the gift shop that was selling wifi cards, so that they could get in touch with friends and family to tell them about the new delay. Several passengers were able to reach Southwest Airlines using wifi calling to seek to find real information (which they were given immediately: by 10:30, the plane, which had been scheduled to leave Orlando at 7:00 am, had not even left the ground in Orlando yet: i.e., there was no way it could leave at 11:15 am, although the monitors still claimed it would. Several passengers asked to speak with supervisors to complain about the dreadful communication and customer service in Havana, which was ongoing. The delays in reaching supervisors, meant that most of these calls were dropped by the network, or by expiring wifi cards, before any answers were obtained. This was the point that Southwest Airlines customer service apparently finally got the message how angry all these customers were – because until then the customers had in most cases not been able to reach a Southwest employee of any kind the entire time they had been stranded.
But the delays, and poor communication, continued. It was the morning of August 20, when most customers had purchased wifi cards and taught each other how to use wifi calling and set up flight notifications, that the passengers truly realized how totally uninformed Southwest’s Cuban contractors were. It was easy to find out the status of a flight by making a wifi call to Southwest, but impossible to get any information from the local Southwest contractors, who said they had no information, and again virtually never used the PA system in order to provide information to all passengers.
At 11:30, the delayed replacement plane arrived and began boarding. Several passengers asked the flight attendant and the pilot if they would provide free wifi because of the extreme delay and passengers’ need to get in touch with their relatives and look into connecting flights due to that delay. The pilot said they would not be providing wifi. “Oh, you must not know what we’ve been through – just radio in the request, I have no doubt headquarters will approve it,” said one passenger. “No,” said the pilot, “I have no way of reaching them, and we don’t provide free wifi in these situations. But if you want to contact them, you can do that.” “What?” said the passenger. “And how would I be able to reach them from here? By paying you for wifi??” “I guess so” said the pilot.
After the flight was in the air, and one group of passengers regaled the flight attendant with the story of their ordeal, another group was checking out Southwest Airlines’ twitter feed. “You’ll never believe this!” one man said. “Southwest is literally bragging that they have the ‘world’s largest fleet of 737s – and yet it took them 17 hours after they cancelled our flight to get just one of them 90 miles from Florida to rescue the 175 people they stranded there!”
When the passengers stranded in Havana Cuba for 22 hours finally reached Fort Lauderdale, the extent of the ordeal became clear: not only had every passenger missed his connection; but most passengers could not be accomodated to their final destinations for 24-48 hours after their arrival in Fort Lauderdale. The same passengers that Southwest had stranded in Cuba were now stranded in Fort Lauderdale.
After collecting their luggage, passengers were told to proceed to the transfer desk, where they would be assigned to new connecting flights “and receiving a voucher for the inconvenience.” When passengers reached that desk, they learned that the voucher was for a mere $200. “Ironic” said one. “By giving us a travel voucher for just $200, not even enough for most one way trips, Southwest is basically offering us to strand us somewhere again. What a charming way to say I’m sorry.”
A $200 voucher is indeed small compensation for the two to three day delay caused by Southwest’s lack of international operating competence. To begin with, a voucher is inherently worth less than cash, since you have to spend money to save money. It is especially inexpensive for the entity that issues it, since they are giving away something at their own cost and not at the price people pay: the marginal cost of an additional seat filled on an airplane has been estimated at about $30 for the average domestic flight (ie., while the average cost of a seat may be closer to $150, if a plane is already scheduled to fly, and has more than 75% of its seats filled, there is virtually no additional cost to the airline of letting an additional passenger on the plane – and this is the economic situation of a voucher. For a flight priced at $600 round trip (although many Southwest round trip flights cost significantly more), a customer with a $200 voucher would pay $400 cash. But the marginal cost to Southwest of the seats is only $60 round trip (if a passengers checks luggage, the cost to the airline is higher due to baggage handling, so their cost could be up to $10 more per leg), so Southwest literally profits by as much as $360 by issuing the travel voucher.
No matter whether you look at it from the passenger’s perspective – losing two to three days of work or vacation, and the pain and suffering of that delay (some missed weddings, funerals, birthdays and anniversaries), or if you look at it from the airline’s perspective – issuing a voucher that actually profits them – a $200 travel voucher is not just inadequate, but absurd. What it does provide is yet another piece of clear evidence that Southwest does not understand that it is not able to provide safe or competent international operations when they have no employees abroad and rely on uninformed and incompetent local contractors who are out of touch with the main office and have no ability or authority to mitigate or correct problems or even to keep passengers apprised of what is going on.
A senior Southwest customer service staffer named Isaac Leach stated “what you have to understand is that no airline has full time employees in Havana.” What Isaac and Southwest don’t seem to realize is that those airlines do in fact have full time staff there – United, for example, literally flies a United employee to Havana every day on the first flight, who returns on the last flight out, precisely so that passengers have a competent informed person to deal with. United knows how to run international operations. Southwest does not.
On Wednesday, August 30, the last of the passengers stranded by Southwest Airlines in Cuba finally arrived at their final destinations – delayed as much as four days by Southwest’s lack of operational infrastructure in Havana. And situations like these will recur as long as Southwest doesn’t put competent personnel on the ground there and at other international destinations in order to keep their passengers safe and informed. However, those actions seem a long way off, given what is now known to be an attitude that goes all the way to the top that they did nothing wrong here and there is nothing wrong with their international operations. And that’s why anyone who flies Southwest Airlines to an international destination is taking a very big risk; and why the 175 people who learned the hard way say “don’t fly Southwest Airlines.”