The US Department of Transportation has published a helpful guide of specific expectations for holding Southwest Airlines accountable for its operational meltdown over the last week. Impacted passengers should use this guide as a blueprint for seeking compensation for expected and unexpected expenses stemming from Southwest’s collapse.
DOT Lays Out 4 Detailed Priorities For Southwest Airlines – How You Can Hold Southwest Accountable
In a letter to Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg pinpoints four urgent priorities:
- Getting stranded passengers to their destinations safely and quickly
- Providing or reimbursing passengers for meals, hotels, and ground transportation to or
- Promptly refunding affected passengers for their cancelled tickets should the passenger
not accept the alternative offered such as rebooking
- Ensuring that passengers are quickly reunited with their baggage
Those are all fairly straightforward, but the DOT does not stop there, instead providing more specific instructions which help to create clear and measurable expectations:
1. Getting Passengers To Their Destination
Southwest should ensure that every available resource is being used to assist stranded passengers in finding a way to reach their destination as quickly as possible. Southwest has stated that it will honor reasonable requests for reimbursement for alternate transportation, such as other airline tickets, Amtrak, or rental cars, for those impacted by a flight cancellation or significant flight delay between December 24, 2022, and January 2, 2023. It would be an unfair and deceptive practice not to fulfill this commitment to passengers. The Department will use the fullest extent of its investigative and enforcement powers to hold Southwest accountable if it fails to adhere to the promises made to reimburse passengers for costs incurred for alternate transportation.
Importantly, if you paid for a ticket on another airline (or train or rental car) to reach your destination due to a Southwest cancellation or “significant” delay, you should expect to be compensated for those tickets.
2. Providing Meals, Hotels, And Ground Transportation To And From Hotels
Southwest has committed to providing meals when a controllable cancellation or delay results in passengers waiting for 3 hours or more for a new flight. This includes all passengers traveling between December 24th and January 2nd who experienced a cancellation or significant delay. In addition, Southwest has promised to provide hotel accommodations and ground transportation to and from hotels for any passenger affected by a controllable overnight delay or cancellation. The Department will take action to hold Southwest accountable if it fails to fulfill commitments that the airline has made in its customer service plans for controllable delays and cancellations.
Save your hotel, meal, Uber, and taxi receipts, because Southwest will be on the hook for compensation for all of these expenses. The expectation is prefaced by “reasonable” so if you chose to stay at Four Seasons for $1,000/night or dined out on caviar and Champagne, you may have trouble getting that paid back from Southwest.
3. Refunding Passengers
Under the law, Southwest must provide prompt refunds when a carrier cancels a passenger’s flight or makes a significant change in the flight, regardless of the reason, unless the passenger accepts rebooking. This means Southwest must provide refunds within seven business days if a passenger paid by credit card, and within 20 days if a passenger paid by cash, check, or other means. The Department will use the full extent of its investigation and enforcement authority to ensure Southwest complies with its refund obligations.
Under DOT guidance, passengers must be refunded if their flight was cancelled or significantly delayed. If you did not travel, you can expect a cash refund even on the cheapest “Wanna Getaway” fares. However, if you purchased transport on another carrier, expect that to be reimbursed instead of your Southwest ticket. If your new ticket on another airline was cheaper than your Southwest ticket, you can simply request a refund of your Southwest ticket.
4. Reuniting With Baggage
Southwest communicated to the Department that all baggage has been scanned and that there will be greater transparency for customers about where their bags are currently located, where they want them sent, and when they’ll receive them. We expect you to make every effort, including alternate shipping methods, to get baggage back to customers as quickly as possible. Also, under DOT’s regulation, Southwest is required to reimburse passengers up to $3,800 for provable direct or consequential damages resulting from the disappearance of, damage to, or delay in the delivery of a passenger’s baggage.
I think the biggest challenge Southwest now faces is delivering the thousands of bags that have been separated from their owners. While the easiest course of action is for consumers to travel to the airport to claim their bags and then submit a reimbursement request for the gas or Uber fare, the DOT does expect Southwest to deliver bags in the days ahead and compensate for lost, damaged, or missing bags. However, no deadlines have been set for delivery.
These specific guidelines from DOT will help consumers hold Southwest Airlines accountable for the operational meltdown. While “sticking it” to Southwest is not the goal, it is only by actually holding Southwest Airlines accountable that the airline will be moved to take corrective action to ensure a similar controllable meltdown does not happen again.
image: Southwest Airlines
One might argue that if they got you to the destination in a reasonable period of time, no refund is due. Some may argue that meals are not a valid reimbursement because you have to eat anyway. On the other hand, it’s more expensive than cooking at home.
There should just be mutual emergency interlining. Another airline takes you there but if that airline has problems in the future, Southwest is among the airlines that takes you there.
For us, the impact was cancellation of the entire trip. The reasonable expenses incurred were the return fare, which was booked on a different carrier and is nonrefundable or noncreditable. I don’t see explicit mention of those things here. But, in my mind, take a different issue, if Southwest’s cancellation caused me to miss my cruise, they should pay for it (or be first liable for it). And it isn’t the same as regular operations when one flight is cancelled, because there would be other flights. Here, cancellations and the network was down for days. Even if I booked to arrive the day before my cruise, it is unlikely I would have been able to make it.
Just the lost luggage will take weeks to sort out.