A Southwest Airlines gate agent made a tempting offer for travelers in St. Louis right before all heck broke loose.
On Dec. 22, we were waiting to board a flight to Houston, where we planned to spend the winter holidays with my parents and siblings. The flight was overbooked. The gate agent asked for two volunteers to give up their seats to be rebooked on a later flight. Each volunteer would get $1,500.
That was an eye-popping number. My daughter and I looked at each other, possibly having similar thoughts. We had taken advantage of getting bumped on this same route a few years ago: We'd waited four hours for the next flight, and the airline gave us each $500 in future travel funds.
That looked like chump change compared to the $3,000 on the table now. I started imagining beach getaways during the upcoming winter months.
"Should we take it?" I asked. My daughter, who shares my love for a bargain, volunteered to stay back with me. Our current circumstances -- three days before Christmas, with a winter storm predicted for that evening -- were considerably different than the last time this risk paid off, and the chances of making a later flight looked iffy, at best. On the other hand, we were about to board a 5 a.m. flight. Surely there would be a few more chances to make it to Texas before the weather got too dicey.
My spouse immediately quashed my desire to gamble on the holidays.
"No way," he said. "It's not worth it."
He pointed out the worst-case scenario: What if we couldn't make it there for days? Would it be worth the time lost with my family?
I agreed that the potential for hassle and regret was higher than I cared to risk. In hindsight, his advice seems even wiser than it did in the moment.
We had no idea how bleak air travel on Southwest was about to become.
Later that day, the winter storm caused massive disruptions and flight delays. The problems at Southwest escalated due to antiquated crew-scheduling technology that hadn't been updated in decades. The airline canceled 15,000 flights around Christmas, stranded tens of thousands of passengers and lost truckloads of luggage. It took eight days for the airline to recover from a meltdown never before seen in the industry.
It's hard enough to admit your spouse made the right call when you were wavering. It's even harder when the news is continuously blaring evidence of that rightness.
Marital scorekeeping aside, I learned some surprising things from the Southwest fiasco. For one thing, I had no idea I had been flying regularly in aircraft that rely on technology from the 1990s to get where they need to be. We used pay phones and StreetFinder maps in the '90s. I had visions of Southwest pilots answering rotary telephones to get flight instructions. The airline hasn't made any promises about when these systems will be updated, but they did pass out 25,000 frequent flyer miles (equal to a base fare value of around $300) as a "gesture of goodwill" for all the holiday plans they wrecked.
I also learned that airlines are required to compensate travelers who are involuntarily bumped from a flight, but not those whose flights are delayed or canceled because of bad weather, air traffic delays or mechanical issues.
While Southwest continued to work on refunding customers and rebuilding its reputation, another unprecedented snafu grounded all domestic flights temporarily: On Jan. 11, an FAA system failure caused more than 7,000 flights in or out of the United States to be delayed.
Given the potential impact on our lives and economy, updating systems and technology ought to be a higher priority for government and commercial air carriers.
For the rest of us, difficult situations largely outside of our control provide a chance to model patience and resilience for our children. It's never the poor gate agent, ticket counter worker or customer service representative who decides to cancel a flight.
Our own near-miss with the Southwest meltdown reminded me it's not worth gambling on special family moments.
Those days ended up being worth much more than $3,000.