A former customer-service representative for Southwest Airlines shared why they left.
They say the lead-up to the holidays brings too many customers for few staffers.
Dealing with the chaos raised their blood pressure and hurt their back.
In a statement to Insider, Southwest said its full-time employee count surpassed prepandemic totals. The full statement is published below.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with a 47-year-old former customer-service representative for Southwest Airlines who worked for the airline from 2008 until 2022. They asked to speak on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional repercussions, but Insider has verified their identity and employment with documentation. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Ironically, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day were among the most peaceful shifts I had as a Southwest customer-service representative. It was a holiday pay, dead day.
However, as for the weeks leading up to the holidays? Hell — for everyone involved.
It’s an all-hands-on-deck setup for every Southwest agent during the holidays — particularly this year, because we were short-staffed. Everyone had extra hours added to their shifts to accommodate for the higher influx of travelers.
One nice thing that we were allowed to do was offer a coworker a bonus on top of their pay if they agreed to cover our shift. The bonus would come out of our paycheck.
I emailed one of my coworkers offering them a bonus if they’d cover my Thanksgiving shift this year when it hit me: I’d finally had enough.
It’s not that working for Southwest was bad as a whole. I’m grateful for the people I met and being paid more as I worked my way up the ranks to a full-time senior-employee position. However, I feared for my health handling yet another neverending holiday onslaught of customers for the same amount of money I made during a regular shift (holiday pay only applied to the actual holiday days).
Tensions are always high with management and customers during the holiday season. Naturally, Southwest customer-service reps are encouraged to maintain a high standard of kindness, patience, and decorum, even when customer expectations are higher given the stress of holiday travel.
Customers have high expectations — but some circumstance are out of our control, no matter what season
Nobody wants to miss a holiday with their family. What I always found interesting was that the customers I dealt with during the holiday season were always more willing to forgive, in spite of their frustrations, because it was the holidays.
For example, I distinctly remember a family that was traveling to Boise during Christmas last year. The flight was canceled due to bad weather. My gut reaction was to assume that the family would get angry with me, yell, rant, anything. But they were just so sad to miss Christmas. The kids especially talked about wanting to see their cousins. Sure, the family was able to fly out the next day, but they’d missed Christmas itself, and my heart broke for them.
Contrast that experience to a lady flying with a child that was clearly over the age of two last Thanksgiving. If a child is older than two, the parent must pay the price of a child’s ticket. She got upset when we asked for the child’s birth certificate (it’s our policy) and huffed and puffed throughout the entire process. The customer was very upset when we made her pay for a child’s ticket.
Short-staffing led to additional stress for our entire team
I’m very proficient in math, and I realized that the sheer percentage of customers my coworkers and I had to help during the holiday season didn’t match up with the 10 to 12 agents we had in total during a morning or afternoon shift.
Not only that, but where we were located was very sporadic. There were six to seven of us at the counter, four of us at the gate, and then the remaining employees handling customers downstairs and bags. I played with the statistics in my head — on a holiday, we’d typically deal with roughly 3,000 customers in the morning and 1,200 to 2,000 in the evening. A normal day would typically be around half of that amount of customers. So these thousands of passengers we’re dealing with all go in different directions when they enter the airport.
Some of them go to the kiosk, and some of them go directly to the gate. Some of them don’t have bags, but around 40% of them have bags. And we’re the only ones (when we’re staffed at the front counter) that have to handle and lift every single piece of luggage that customers want to check for their flight.
No wonder my back was always killing me and my blood pressure was higher than normal. It’s bag after bag, customer after customer, many in a hurry to get to their destination for the holidays. It’s a lot.
I’ve worked nearly 10 holiday seasons at Southwest
I quit several weeks before the start of the 2022 holiday season. I knew I was going to have to work mandatory overtime, but the extra pay was no longer worth it to me. The thing people forget is that customer-service employees have families, too.
Yes, we’re making money and getting excellent benefits and other employee perks, but we’re stuck in the trenches helping customers when we could be out with our families doing all of the traditional holiday celebrations. And that’s the worst feeling because I have a large family, especially on my husband’s side. And it feels so lonely working during the holidays.
That’s why I left. I couldn’t do that anymore.
In a statement to Insider, a spokesperson for Southwest said: As the 2022 holiday travel season begins, the Southwest Team is slated to operate nearly 3,900 daily flights, on peak days, across our network of 121 airports in 11 countries. To support operational performance and reliability, Southwest hired more than 15,700 new Employees in 2022. In fact, Southwest reached an industry-first milestone over the summer when our total, active, full-time equivalent Employee count surpassed the number of Southwest Employees from pre-pandemic 2019 totals.
Southwest has achieved a 99% completion factor in recent months delivering our Customers reliably to their destinations as promised. We’ve taken steps this year to bolster flexibility and options for our Customers, including offering a first-of-its-kind perk with Flight Credits that never expire — which joins other offerings such as bags fly free, no change fees, and Rapid Rewards points that don’t expire.
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