Viewpoints

Joe Mathews: Southwest’s decline boosts high-speed rail

Selia Holder, left, runs to get a group shot of the Southwest Airlines employees during a 2011 celebration of 20 years of service at Sacramento International Airport. Once known for its low fares and high customer satisfaction, the formerly idiosyncratic airline is becoming more like its dysfunctional competitors, a columnist opines.
Selia Holder, left, runs to get a group shot of the Southwest Airlines employees during a 2011 celebration of 20 years of service at Sacramento International Airport. Once known for its low fares and high customer satisfaction, the formerly idiosyncratic airline is becoming more like its dysfunctional competitors, a columnist opines. Sacramento Bee file

I may have to take back everything bad I ever said about California’s high-speed rail project.

This thought ran through my head one morning last week at Gate A3 of Burbank airport, as I engaged in another of my now-frequent battles with Southwest Airlines.

My morning flight to Oakland had been canceled with little warning or explanation. But Southwest wouldn’t let me on an earlier flight that had room and was still sitting at the gate. The Southwest agent said he couldn’t get me to Oakland before 3 p.m. – and I was scheduled to give a talk at 4. He could get me to San Jose, but wouldn’t offer me compensation for the car I’d have to rent. When I protested, he told me to call Southwest customer relations in Dallas. The line was busy.

I used to think that a $70 billion train from L.A. to San Francisco didn’t make much sense because the great state of California had Southwest Airlines. 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, often for less than $100 round-trip. While covering Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 2000s, Southwest was so good that I often beat the governor, who flew private jets, to his destination.

But the glory days of Southwest may be coming to an end.

Once known for its low fares and high customer satisfaction, the formerly idiosyncratic airline is becoming more like its dysfunctional competitors. Southwest’s on-time performance is now among the worst in the airline business. Flight cancellations are common, and prices have risen well above bus-service level. Walk-up fares approach $250 each way.

Most distressing has been the decline of its service culture. Southwest employees who once were empowered to get you on a plane now routinely explain how they can’t help. The gate agent who denied me access to the earlier flight said he’d love to get me on board, but it was above his head.

Of course, Southwest is a public company and must do what is best for its shareholders. But in California, Southwest’s troubles have left an unmistakable void, and it’s not clear who can fill it. Other major national airlines offer fewer in-state flights in California and, when you count baggage fees, are still more expensive than Southwest. It’d be nice if Burlingame-based Virgin America could step up and reduce our reliance on Texas-based Southwest, but it flies out of only four California airports.

In this context, high-speed rail looks less like an extravagance and more like a necessity. Critics of high-speed rail, including me, used to point out that the projected cost of tickets, in the $40-to-$120 range, wasn’t any cheaper than flying.

But with fares from Burbank to Oakland running $223 next week on Southwest, that’s no longer the case. The three-hour train travel time between L.A. and San Francisco also doesn’t seem so bad with all of Southwest’s delays.

For reasons of commerce and culture, it should be less of an ordeal to travel across the California. The number of trips annually between greater L.A. and the Bay Area by flying and driving – estimated at 15 million – seems low for a state with 38 million people and so many attractions. But who wants to subject themselves to the misery of Southwest or Interstate 5?

Last week, I made it to my talk, at a cost. I flew to San Jose and paid $100 for a rental car to get to Oakland. But the Southwest battle left me scarred. My family and I had been planning to go to the Bay Area to see my grandmother this week. Now we’ll probably stay home.

Joe Mathews is innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.

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