How Southwest Airlines fails California, makes high-speed rail look good

southwest-plane-zocalo.jpgZocalo Public Square editor and columnist Joe Mathews has commuted up and down the state for years, and has learned a few tricks about getting between LA and Sacramento or the Bay Area. Southwest Airlines used to be the friend of such Californians (just as PSA was for an earlier generation of Capitol electeds, staffers and reporters) but Mathews has become a disaffected customer of the airline. "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," he wrote in a column for Thanksgiving week. But not anymore.

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….

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.

This all started, apparently, after Southwest cancelled his flight out of Burbank and couldn't satisfy Mathews with an alternative or compensation.

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