Southwest Airlines Vows Not to Overbook Flights. What It’s Doing Now Is Far Worse

Airlines are struggling to stay afloat, even as air travel soars. They’re doing whatever they can to maximize revenue with every flight. Many are going to one of the oldest tricks in the book: Overbooking flights.

It’s a gamble that generally pays off. But when it doesn’t, Southwest Airlines upholds its title as America’s least reliable airline while also doing what no business should do. It makes its customers pay for its mistakes–despite that Southwest vowed to adopt a no-overbooking policy back in 2017, reports CBS News.

The airline claims to uphold this policy today, yet last year, Southwest had the most overbooked flights of any airline, according to CNBC. Meanwhile, Southwest’s media team tells a different story.

“Southwest stopped overselling flights in 2017. However, there are times when Southwest must change flights to an aircraft type with fewer seats to recover a disrupted flight during irregular operations. When this occurs, some Customers may be involuntarily denied boarding.”

Swapping out its standard aircraft (with a capacity of 175) for its smaller one (with a capacity of 143) means cutting roughly 20 percent of its passengers on a full flight. Although it comes with the caveat that it only happens, “If we don’t have enough customers volunteer to take another flight,” I’ve yet to witness Southwest ask for volunteers.

Unlike other airlines that offer free flight vouchers or money to lure passengers into volunteering to take an alternative flight, Southwest seems to take matters into its own hands, making changes to its passengers’ flights without their approval. Often it’s at the last minute and it’s to a cheaper flight–the very one you opted against and paid more money not to take. No discounts, no refunds, no apologies.

It has happened to me multiple times with Southwest in the last year alone.

Businesses in many industries are looking for ways to combat rising inflation and labor shortages, but passing the buck to customers is never the answer. When faced with an issue in business that could lose you money in the short term, here are three things to remember to guide your decision-making and help you generate income in the long term.

1. Hollow Promises Are Worse Than No Promises

As much as something might sound good, it doesn’t look good if you don’t deliver–especially when you have no real plans to even try. So while there’s an innate desire to oversell, there is value in avoiding setting excessively high expectations. In fact, psychologically, low expectations increase happiness, and with that, customer satisfaction.

By now, we’ve all been duped by glittering marketing messages that sound good and fall flat. Setting big expectations can help land a sale. But if you don’t deliver, don’t expect to land repeat customers. Instead, be realistic and provide what you said you would, and then some. In doing so, you’ll get happy customers who keep coming back–while often referring their friends to you as well.

2. Skip the Semantics

Southwest might get to claim it has a “no overbooking policy” thanks to semantics, but that doesn’t mean the end result for the passenger isn’t the same. Southwest passengers still get bumped from last-minute flights, leaving them stranded and scrambling.

Marketing and advertising have created a lot of distrust–so much so that 96 percent of consumers don’t trust ads, and that’s in part because of hollow promises built on deceptive semantics. While it’s often possible to massage words to make it sound as though you are right, hedging your business against its customers is always wrong.

3. When Gambling, Your Losses Are Your Own

If you’re going to gamble, be prepared to take responsibility for your losses. You can’t win every game, and so while overbooking typically works, the onus is on you to make things right when you find yourself on the losing side. It’s not your customers’ responsibility to shoulder your debts and so customers shouldn’t be the ones who lose when your bets don’t pay off.

While nearly every major airline overbooks flights, now eat the cost of a free flight voucher or money to encourage passengers to change flights on their own accord when all passengers actually show up to an overbooked flight. Although it may not be giving customers exactly what they paid for, it also doesn’t place the burden on them since they’re given the choice.

Businesses face all sorts of decisions every day, many of which involve gambling in one way or another. There are times when you might inevitably have to gamble with your customers, but if you lose, don’t expect them to pay the price. Mistakes happen and the truth isn’t always pretty. But deception is always ugly, and it’s a fast way to lose trust, customers, and revenue.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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