Kicked off flight for a tweet? Southwest responds

Boarding a Southwest Airlines flight (Judy Baxter / Flickr)

Boarding a Southwest Airlines flight (Judy Baxter / Flickr)

Everyone loves a good airline customer service drama during the hot, sweaty and tempestuous peak summer travel season. It’s the time of year when we all love to hate the airlines.

That’s why the story about a Southwest Airlines passenger who claims that a negative tweet got him kicked off a plane spread like wildfire today.

Let’s take a look at what happened.

According to an interview with passenger Duff Watson in the New York Daily News,

The trouble started on Sunday afternoon, when Watson and his two children, age 6 and 9, attempted to board their flight  [from Denver to Minneapolis] early. Watson is part of Southwest Airlines’ ‘A-List’ program, which rewards frequently flying customers with extra perks, such as priority boarding privileges. Watson has reportedly been an A-lister for three years. Even though his children aren’t A-Listers, Watson said that he’s usually able to board early with his kids in tow. But the agent behind the podium wouldn’t let them board before the rest.

So what it sounds like to me is that Watson was asking a harried gate agent to bend the rules and let he and his kids board early, ahead of other families waiting for the family boarding call. The gate agent would not bend the rules and the two got into a heated exchange at the gate. (We’ve all been there, right?)

Watson and his kids then boarded with the rest of the families traveling together.

When Watson got on board the plane he tweeted the gate agent’s name, gate number and something about her being “the rudest agent at Southwest.”

Once everyone was on the plane, an announcement was made asking Watson and his family to get off the plane with their belongings.

Here’s what Watson told the Daily News that happened when they got off:

“We met the gate agent who was very worked up and she says because I’m using her name in social media, that I am a threat. And that’s why I’m being asked to leave,” Watson said. “Then she said, ‘You need to delete that tweet or I’m calling the cops.’

Watson said he deleted the tweet and got back on the plane and flew home with his family (and likely fumed about it the whole way).

Now lets look at Southwest’s side of the story. This afternoon, the carrier issued the following statement about the incident:

Southwest Airlines appreciates and is active in social media and it is not our intent to stifle Customer feedback. We find social media to be a very valuable avenue for engaging with our Customers.

On Sunday, July 20, a Southwest Airlines Employee and Customer were having a conversation about the airline’s family boarding procedures that escalated. The Customer was briefly removed from flight #2347 from DEN to MSP to resolve the conversation outside of the aircraft and away from the other passengers. Following a successful resolution, the Customer and his family were able to continue on the flight to Minneapolis. We are thoroughly investigating the situation. We have reached out to the Customer and offered vouchers as a gesture of goodwill.

I can see both sides of the story here.

Keep-calm-and-carry-on-scanWatson was asking the agent to bend the rules and allow him to board first with his kids. I would imagine there were probably other A-listers with families waiting for the family boarding call. Allowing Watson and his family to board early would not have been fair, and could have ended up pissing off someone else. This reeks of the whole “don’t you know who I am” (DYKWIA) attitude many elite level members are regrettably known for.

Now, when it comes to forcing the passenger to delete the tweet before allowing him to board, and stating that she felt the tweet was “threat” I think the gate agent was wrong. And it was improper of her to de-board the passenger and escalate the situation to that level.

This is likely one of many hot-headed incidents that are happening every day during the heat of the summer season. I think we all need to focus on stepping back and taking it down a notch when faced with travel hassles.

Here’s an interview with Watson on CBS Minneapolis

What do YOU think about this situation? How would you have felt if you were Watson…or the gate agent…or someone else watching all this happen? Please leave your comments below.

–Chris McGinnis

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  • youwontgetmynametopost

    The customer should have accepted the rules and let it end there. The only reason he identified the agent was to encourage other rude treatment towards her. Politeness is always appropriate, especially when you are in the wrong. 3 cheers for SW for standing by their staff. On the other hand, the real problem with Southwest’s customer service is the cattle call boarding. Didn’t they say several years ago they would be ending that practice? What’s the point of it anyway? That’s why I fly JetBlue.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    I agree with Scott … I’ve seen maybe 6 rude airline employees during 30 years of 7 or 8 flights a year. I’ve seen rude passengers twice a year in that time.

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Thanks, Mike! I appreciate your polite and informed comment! Keep it up :) — chris

  • Mike G

    I respectfully disagree. I travel A LOT (and because of the type of short distance travel I do, a very large chunk of it is on Southwest) and it amazes me how entitled a lot of my fellow frequent fliers act. There are certain perks that I expect as a result of my frequent status but it seems like that isn’t good enough for a lot of people. Are there rude gate agents? Of course there are, gate agents are human so there are going to be not so good ones just like any other profession. Yet nearly every gate agent I have encountered has been friendly and helpful. I’m not sure who was right or wrong in this case because I wasn’t there. But it strikes me that this flyer got all huffy when he couldn’t get extra special treatment.

  • WE

    I’ve flown with my child since she was an infant on several different airlines. SW is without question the most child unfriendly. Let me correct that, the most parent unfriendly. To children they are indifferent.

  • Super Frank

    People who fight with airline personnel when they’re actually wrong need to take the bus.

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Good points, well stated. Thanks Anson! – chris

  • anson

    From my experience, the boarding order is: A-list, A group, then families, then B and C. Mr Watson would have had to wait until the entire A group had boarded before his family could board together. I’m sure as an A-lister and from his previous experience he did not expect to wait, whatever the official policy.

    I blame Southwest for not enforcing this policy in his previous travels. While he may have gone over the line in tweeting the agent’s full name, and the agent may have crossed the line treating this as a threat, this whole situation would not have happened if Southwest actually enforced their policies consistently and fairly.

    I personally have no problem if Southwest were to change their policy to allow A-listers to board early with accompanying travelers. It’s not necessarily “fun” to earn that status level and it would be a worthwhile perk for those who put up with the airline — or any airline — enough to attain it. But I’m also ok with the current policy, but please apply it consistently.

  • SciLaw

    Nice pawnage!

  • Wotevahsf

    Wot ever … Your Logic is deafening.

  • Wotevahsf

    Guy is an a hole.

  • semi freq traveler

    No one really addressed how exactly the agent said No. I had an incident with Alaska where first class was boarding and I asked the agent if my ticket was first class. I know that sounds weird but I didn’t ask for first class but it appeared I was assigned a seat there. I wasn’t sure about the plane’s configuration so I was unsure. I travel enough that this has happened, rarely, but more than once. But when I asked, the agent brusquely said, “You have to go wait with everyone else.” Which I did. But when I got on the plane, it was a first class seat. You might say the issue was I got an incorrect answer. But to me, the issue was the agent really was rude. And I bet the agent was really rude to this guy. If the agent had called the cops, what was she going to accuse the guy of? Rude tweet? I haven’t seen that law yet.

  • Eric Westby

    If you “wouldn’t know that,” perhaps you should delete the post above, in which you unequivocally claim that anyone siding with Southwest is “totally wrong”? :)

  • TheCardinalRules

    I’m with Southwest and the gate agent on this one. Calling someone out by name on social media is uncalled for and I can see where the individual felt threatened by it. This is an issue he should have taken privately to Southwest management.

  • 30324Traveler

    Having “A-List” status on SouthWest airlines is a bit like being the tallest midget. People need to understand that you get what you pay for. Yes, there are two sides to very tale; however that agent went on a little power trip and I would not have deleted my tweet and let her bury herself and SW airlines with what I am sure she would have done next. #ILOATHSOUTHWESTAIRLINES

  • billsbest

    Helen, this might be the most sensible, most reasonable comment to this story. Thanks for bringing a measure of calmness to the discussion.

  • 30309guy

    Well I wouldn’t know that. I don’t patronize bargain basement trashy airlines. On the Legacy airlines, if you have status, your “party” can join you…all the way to upgrades.

  • bayareascott

    A pretty bold statement when you weren’t there to see it.

  • bayareascott

    And you’ve never seen a rude passenger? Most interactions I see are due to an entitled customer wanting something they are not entitled to. Too many people can’t handle being told no very well, even politely.

  • Michael Hamilton

    I think the most interesting question is whether a carrier has the right to vet passengers based on social media profile. If you take SWA’s policy to a logical conclusion, you can imagine scenarios where some pax are given perks based on their social media mentions of the airline (ok well that sounds nice), and perhaps others are refused service for critical commentary (ew, ok, that’s beginning to sound creepy).

    I will add that if came down to legal brass tacks, I doubt that court would conclude that the agent had any reasonable expectation for privacy in such a public location (especially since everyone has multiple, clearly visible nametags). But the next obvious question is would the airline – or, ultimately, a court – treat the situation differently if an image were tweeted, vs. a name.

    I’m ambivalent about the specific parties in this case (and sympathetic to the harassment issue), but it definitely raises concerns for me when perceived ‘security threats’ are used to justify the infringement of an individual’s right to express themselves.

  • Penguinn

    It is probably only a matter of time before we all become a “threat” to some power-mad individual in a position of “authority.”

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Thanks, Doug. Somebody needs to offer Twitter Etiquette 101! Probably make a million! :) — chris

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Thanks, Cathy! Nice hubby! — chris

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    $0

  • JLLNYC

    How much did Southwest pay you to to write this?

  • Cathy Canton

    He should not have used her name She should not have pulled him off the plane. The airline should have backed the employee if that is their policy. It is a bad policy children and spouse travelling WITH elite or gold or what ever the name is should be allowed to board with them.The other people with kids if they have that status can do the same or wait with others who don’t The status is based on number of flights and that should be valued. My kids and I have always been about to use the lounge and board with my hubby when he had super elite or elite status. Just my 2 cents.
    No excuse to be rude though! He sounds like he is enjoying the drama.

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Thanks, Lynne! Great comment and also great to hear from you! — chris

  • LynneP

    This is why I don’t fly Southwest if can avoid it. USAir/American lets everyone board with the highest level person. If the customer tweeted the agent’s first name plus initial of last name, that should be just fine. Tweeting full name was improper, but the gate agent reaction was far worse. That was no threat, but her action makes us all nervous about what we tweet. Guess you have to like SWA to fly it, so I won’t fly it unless I absolutely have to. A-list should be treated much better than that. He should change airlines.

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Thanks, Bob! Good point and glad you repeated it! — chris

  • Bob C

    It’s been said in other ways but perhaps it needs repeating. The passenger crossed the line when he used the agents name. If you want to complain about service, tweet away. If you want to call out a particular employee, ask SWA to contact you privately. Any company that understands social media is monitoring it and will respond.

  • Justme88

    He was bending the rules, the gate agent explained he could board with the lower group number, which is standard policy for Sothwest.

  • Douglas

    All of these comments on whether the gate agent was right or wrong, that’s not the point of the article. The passenger clearly doesn’t understand Social Networking, to do a public tweet versus Direct Message. I commend Southwest for quickly passing along the message from Social Media to the airport. Delta has done something similar when I was in SJU and I DM’d feedback, though in a positive light not slamming anyone. Delta opened the middle door, Red Coat asked me to come talk in the jet-way, I explained my concerns. Delta wanted to make it right before the flight left as a valued customer. Kudos Southwest for doing exactly as it should and also addressing directly with the passenger. Hopefully the passenger can take a Twitter etiquette 101 course to learn the basics and understand the impact of his messages to the social media world.

  • 30309guy

    You are totally wrong. He wasn’t asking the gate agent to bend the rules. The children were quite young and MUST board the plane with an adult. It is common place on all airlines (and TSA (except PreCheck)) to let all family members in the party use the priority lanes of the highest member. This gate agent was a jerk. Period.

  • Phil

    Both Southwest and the customer didn’t handle the issue
    well. The customer should have
    understood Southwest’s boarding rules, especially since he is an A+ member, but
    has every right to complain and use the individual’s name. The gate agent elected to be the face of
    Southwest by accepting the position. In customer service, good or bad, you
    should expect your name can and will be used to hold you accountable. Had the gate agent conveyed the rules,
    nothing would have come of this. The Southwest
    twitter team would have responded informing the passenger of the boarding
    rules, but the gate agent went on a power trip. The agent went from doing her
    job correctly to infringing on a customer’s first amendment right s and what I
    would consider an event worth termination. It takes a lifetime to build a reputation and
    a second to lose it, airlines need to really make examples of the power hungry
    staffers they have out there in the ranks.

  • Joey

    in the article, Watson had asked other gate agents in past flights the same question and those agents let him board with the kids. this is the first time he encountered a gate agent who was not bending the rules. this sounds more like an entitlement issue, especially when he sent the tweet. why can’t Southwest be clearer with marketing the A-list rules? or perhaps the gate agent should have just told him to contact her supervisor?

  • J-P

    He wasn’t asking her to “bend the rules”–this was his understanding of the rule, as it had always been applied in the past. It also makes sense because if you are traveling with three, you could go first and save seats–except if their young children who can’t be left behind. He tweeted her name to the airline so that her bsses would know that she sucks at her job. The gate agent’s response was criminal. Instead of explaining to the airline her position that she was right and justly firm (if she was), she falsely claimed a security threat–he wouldn’t have gotten back on if there was a real threat. She should be fired

  • Just don’t fly Southwest

    Isn’t this the same airline that had Kevin Smith arrested for fitting in his seat without an extension belt?
    http://www.cnn.com/2010/SHOWBIZ/Movies/02/15/kevin.smith.southwest/

    Southwest was totally in the wrong on it. Shows how much they value a-listers and the use of social media.

  • Bill Rubin

    The passenger might have been unruly, but he obviously wasn’t unruly enough that the agent didn’t let him board later with the other families with children. Period. The agent asking him to de-plane so he could delete a tweet is completely preposterous. He is entitled to tweet whatever he wants that isn’t offensive or threatening, and his tweet was neither. (Of course, it does put into perspective that tweets and complaints on blogs about “rude” employees and “bad” service can actually have little to do with that and more to do with unreasonable expectations and over-entitled customers not getting what they didn’t deserve in the first place!) The agent should be disciplined, the airline should give the passenger a free flight voucher, and hopefully everyone learns that free speech is free speech.

  • Helen S

    I can understand the gate agent’s concern about the tweet. I’m a single female with an unusual last name. I don’t use my name anywhere I don’t need to, and I shred anything that has name, phone number, address, etc on it … even junk mail. The gate agent over-reacted, but the customer should never have tweeted the gate agent’s personal info. If you have a complaint about someone, use the form on the airline’s website. People should not be publicly pilloried and ridiculed. Maybe the gate agent was under extraordinary personal stress and it came out at work. Or maybe she’s a loose cannon. But that’s for Southwest to determine privately.
    For Southwest to give the customer some sort of compensation is good customer service, but it doesn’t mean the customer was right. It just means he’s a frequent Southwest traveler with a big mouth.

  • unknown12345678910!

    So disappointed in all the replies on here. There are more rude people in the airline industry than the parking ticket department in NYC. I have seen so many rude flight attendants and gate agents in my day it’s sick. Why are there no issues in First Class Air Singapore? Because their employees have been trained how to be polite and say NO with respect. I’m sure many an Air Singapore flight attendant has asked their customer to turn off the laptop, but it’s never rude like on American Airlines.

  • Gemini210

    I wonder how he would have felt if someone tweeted his name and his kids names and called him the rudest and most self–entitled customer? Would he have sued the tweeter for “endangerment”? Of course, the gate agent was over the top, and abused her power, like many small people do in that situation. I agree with you, Chris, time to cool our jets ;-), so to speak.

  • unknown12345678910!

    What is the answer wasn’t no, but was “get your ass in line before I have you removed you a hole” Is it OK to retaliate? My guess is she was rude and said more than just “NO”

  • unknown12345678910!

    hey “Michael Noonan” you are a fhgfyrjdhyfr. Just joking, but it’s the same thing. I just used your name. Who cares it isn’t against the law and if she was rude I’m glad he did it.

  • Jeff

    Southwest 100% in the WRONG!!! It uses social media all the time, encourages customers to tweet, and he has a nametag. That agent was so out of line and exactly what is wrong with airline employees these days. Good lord. Fire that agent and create a customer service oriented airline please.

  • unknown12345678910!

    A dad with 2 kids in tow on a flight? I’d bet he’s a pretty good dad. How many solo dads you see on a plane with 2 kids under 10?

  • unknown12345678910!

    We have all been there and the majority of the time the gate agent is the problem. I have seen rude agents, but a frequent traveler is usually not rude. I’m in customer service myself and treat people with honey almost all the time. I have met 5-6 gate agents I’d like to pop in the chops. My guess is she’s the typical “Night Club” bouncer type who hates her job, her life and uses the little bit of power granted her to treat people like crap. A father with 2 kids? I’m going to believe him before her any day. Wish we could see a picture of her, it would be telling I bet!

  • Carl P

    So do people realize that when you tweet @southwestair that it has 1.7 million followers? That’s a LOT different the number of people noticing a name badge.
    I find most of the posts here refreshing. On other blogs with the same story the talk is totally about abuse of power, slander, etc. by SWA and the agent.
    I posted earlier on another site about the example for the kids (if you don’t get special treatment then pull out the threats).
    This is my first time on this blog and I think I’ll be back. Totally agree with Haggie.

  • Rod

    This guy seems like a total jerk off. Hopefully he doesn’t have any more kids.

  • Smloop

    Southwest was totally correct. It really sucks to stand in line behind the people who think that the world revolves around them Kudos to Southwest!

  • wooolllawooola

    Agreed: Watson behaved like an idiot.

  • Alexia

    The lesson here is always wait until after you’ve landed at your destination to put the person on blast. The only thing the gate agent did by removing the passenger was further escalating the situation. I’m surprised it didn’t lead to a barrage of tweets once he arrived home. I certainly would have made sure everyone in the social media sphere knew about the inconvenience.

  • Haggie

    Quite an example for his kids…

  • kingofbytes

    You may be right. However, she’s in public and anyone in the airport can see her name tag so that excuse only goes so far.

    Also, why would SW offer vouchers if they did nothing wrong? Wouldn’t it be smarter, if they wanted to keep a repeat customer, to allow him, as a top tier, to board first with his kids? I mean, I’m smelling a distinction without much difference here since the family line was next anyway.

    Now, to be clear, it would appear from the information above, that the guy should’ve just waited for the family line, which was next anyway – I’m in total agreement.

    But back to the point, this should be a wake up call to all customer service facing people in any profession, that you need to make sure you’re taking care of your customers and doing it “right”. My gut tells me there was a little blame to go around on both sides.

  • http://www.noonanadvisors.com Michael Noonan

    It appears to me that the issue is the passenger used the gate agents name. Probably a better idea is to mention a “gate agent” and identify the issue without getting personal.

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Good comment, Chris! I agree.

  • Chris A

    I’m in the follow-the-rules camp. It’s fine to ask nicely about bending the rules, but not okay to retaliate when the answer is no.

    Chris A

  • M

    You’ve got to be kidding me – this is for a TWO HOUR flight? And he felt the NEED to board before families. Wow.

  • http://www.cliqbait.com/ dan luttrell

    So he wasn’t actually “kicked off” the plane. Most likely a jerk I’m guessing that should have just followed the rules. He also could have paid like $12 and had his kids early birded.

  • SK

    Southwest is one of few airline that provides great service and people need to follow their rules. If you bend for one your need to do this for others simple.