How to tell if a travel company is lying to you

Hint: it's not when their lips are moving

It happened again last week. Southwest Airlines suffered a wave of flight cancellations — and many customers didn't believe their excuses.

And that raises an interesting question: How can you tell when a travel company is lying?

First, though, let's talk about Southwest. Last weekend, the airline canceled more than 2,000 flights, or about a third of its schedule. It blamed air traffic control and weather issues, but passengers were skeptical since every airline also faced the same challenges. 

What was really going on?

What do you think?

But before we go there, I'd love to get your opinion. Were one of your flights canceled? Did you read the media coverage and the fallout? Have you ever been lied to by a company? Please share your thoughts with me.

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Adding a layer of intrigue: Some political pundits tried to blame COVID vaccine mandates. But that was simply untrue. (I knew I couldn't get through another story without mentioning the pandemic.)

The Southwest situation was far from simple. For a while, it sure looked like the company's pants were on fire. And, to be sure, there are ways of telling if a travel company is about to lie to you.

But the important thing isn't what the company says — but what it does.

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Southwest: It's complicated

I asked a high-level executive at Southwest about last weekend's meltdown.

"Think of this as a rolling issue," the executive told me. "Friday, we had an air traffic control staffing issue in the Jacksonville tower. That led to ground delay programs at all Florida airports, including a seven-hour ground stop in Orlando. That, coupled with weather, created operational delays and last-minute cancellations."

From Saturday to Tuesday, many Southwest crews were timing out all over the system. That means the airline couldn't fully staff its flights.

"We used up all of our reserve crews getting them to take over for timed-out crews and out-of-place aircraft," she explains. "When we ran out of reserves, we had to resort to canceling operations because we had no more available crews to operate flights.

Bottom line: Southwest needed to assess what the delay problem did to the operation, determining if it could get crews to pick up open time, and maxing out its reserve crews to help staff flights where it had planes out of position. 

"Based on our linear scheduling of aircraft, on a daily basis, 40 to 50 percent of our flight lines pass through a Florida destination. That impact simply took days to unwind and get back to normal," she adds.

I'll tell you what I think of Southwest's explanation in a minute.

Is your travel company lying to you?

I've been considering this question for a long time. Travel companies lie to me every day, and I have to admit, at first, I believed the airlines, hotels and cruise lines. But three decades of consumer advocacy have taught me to distinguish lies from the truth.

Airlines lie about delays, cancellations and lost luggage — or at least we suspect they do. But the field of potential lies is broader than that.

Too good to be true. If something looks too good to be true, then the company is probably lying. That includes:

  • Travel clubs that promise deals "you can't find anywhere else" in exchange for a $5,000 annual fee.

  • Timeshares that use the word "investment" in their promotional language. All timeshares depreciate over time. All timeshares.

  • Loyalty programs that offer "free" perks. Nothing is free — ever. 

  • Any fare or hotel rate where the taxes are more than the base price (more on this in a sec).

If you buy any of this nonsense, you've fallen for a lie. But don't worry, I'm here to warn you.

Lots of fine print. Companies love to hide their lies in fine print. These lies are written in a special language called legalese by lawyers, but don't be fooled by the fancy words. They're still lying. The longer the terms and conditions, the more lies are being told. If you have any doubts about this, just read your cruise line's ticket contract or your airline's contract of carriage. And for extra fun, check out the ticket tariff for your next flight — that's the fine print on your individual ticket. Even airline employees can't understand that. I'm not kidding. 

Price too low. Already talked about this, but let's be clear. Any time you have a fare that's less than the taxes — or zero — you should assume there's some lying going on. Maybe it's a white lie (someone else is subsidizing the ticket) or a bigger lie (there are so many restrictions that the ticket is practically unusable). But make no mistake, a lie is a lie.

The facts say otherwise. If an airline claims there's a weather delay and it's sunny outside, you should be suspicious. Now, it's true that when a flight's coming in from another airport, weather at that airport can affect your flight. But the airline should explain that.

A track record of lying. Some travel companies — I'm looking at you, low-fare airlines — have a reputation for bending facts. If you're dealing with a company that has a long record of lying, and you feel as if you're being lied to, then chances are, you are.

But you can't always see a lie coming. That's how it was with Southwest's weekend mishap. No one could have predicted it. But did the airline fabricate an excuse?

So was Southwest lying?

We had more than a few complaints from Southwest passengers in the last few days. I've read your comments on the cancellations, as well as the official explanation. And I'll be honest — I don't think Southwest was lying.

The real issue was how Southwest attempted to recover from the canceled flights, not the cancellation of flights. That can happen to any airline. And unfortunately, Southwest took a while to fix the problems, which made them worse.

I heard from customers who received offers of expiring ticket credits when Southwest canceled their flights. Under federal regulation, Southwest should have offered full refunds or ticket credits. There were also reports last week that the airline had apologized selectively to passengers for the cancellations but that other passengers had heard nothing. My USA Today colleagues even published a story to help people get a goodwill voucher. That shouldn't have been necessary.

I think travelers ought to instinctively doubt any explanation they get from a company. But in the end, the truth matters less than how the company fixes the problem. Sometimes, you can know when a company is about to lie to you. Sometimes not. But the best travel companies are the ones that quickly apologize for whatever problem they've caused and make things right.

That's the one thing missing from this discussion about Southwest, and any company with a service mishap.

The problem is obvious — but what's the solution?

Your turn. What do you think of the massive Southwest airlines cancellations and the way it was and wasn't handled? The comments are open.

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About the art

"This one is obvious," says artist Dustin Elliott. "Apologies to Disney and to anyone whose childhoods I ruined by putting Pinoccio's face on a 737. You'll get over it."