Thanks, But No Thanks to Southwest's Giveaway Glitch

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Southwest Airlines, a company known for its fun-loving ways, recently tried to thank its 3 million Facebook friends with half-price fares for flights booked last Friday. But their plan backfired when a “technical glitch” caused customers to be billed as many as twenty times for a single ticket. And, while Southwest immediately admitted the error and agreed to provide refunds, it could take up to ten days for the money to be returned.

Imagine the PR nightmare: Facebook, the very forum on which Southwest sought to capitalize, is now rife with horror stories from hundreds of frustrated “friends.” One, for example, was charged $1,400 for a $69 ticket and now faces penalties and interest on her credit card for exceeding her limit. Others will likely see checks bounce after debit card charges depleted their bank accounts, incurring even more fees and charges, not to mention missed payments for other expenses.

Southwest promised to refund both the overcharges and any overdraft fees that resulted from debit card charges.

But, as easy as it is to make snarky comments at Southwest’s expense, I have to wonder how the charges made it all the way to the customer accounts. As I understand it, each charge requires a unique authorization code. Yes, the system could have authorized each individual transaction but, if so, why weren’t credit limits enforced and bank balances verified?

It all makes you ponder our collective vulnerability to technology. As a career tester, I have to confess that I wonder how civilization functions at all with the amount of software that controls our lives and the relatively miserly expenditure to make sure it all works.

Ever since a project at a major telecom company several years ago where I was introduced to the vast web of software and hardware that controls our telephone systems, I have remained amazed when I pick up the phone and hear a dial tone.

But Southwest’s story raises another interesting point. A PR program planned around an event such as achieving 3 million Facebook friends is decidedly a one-shot project with a short lifecycle of a single day. How much testing time and effort was allowed—and could be justified—to validate the outcome?

I’m sure if you asked their “friends,” the answer would be “not enough.”

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Linda Hayes

Linda G. Hayes is a founder of Worksoft, Inc., developer of next-generation test automation solutions. Linda is a regular columnist and contributor to StickyMinds.com and Better Software magazine, a columnist for Computerworld and Datamation, author of The Automated Testing Handbook, and co-editor (with Alka Jarvis) of Dare To Be Excellent. Contact Linda at lhayes@worksoft.com.