Police Threaten To Arrest Stranded Southwest Airlines Passengers Waiting In Long Lines

Police threatened to arrest stranded Southwest Airlines passengers at the Nashville airport if they didn’t leave the gate area (‘secured side’). They were told if they need help, exit security and go to the ticket counter.

In the video, the officer incorrectly claims that since their flight was cancelled they have no ticket and are therefore “trespassing.” “If your ticket was cancelled, you no longer have a ticket. You understand that, right?” In fact they have tickets. They no longer have reservations.

According to the officer in the first video, “Southwest is calling us” so they’re responding to the airline calling the police on their customers. I certainly feel for the overwhelmed employees, but that’s a bad look.

The officer then claims in the second video that “if you’re told to leave and you refuse to leave.. you don’t have a valid ticket, your ticket got cancelled…” then you’re trespassing and must leave. The officer was not able to “cite the statute” and said he doesn’t need to do so, that the passenger can “look it up.”

By the way, even if your flight is cancelled you can proceed through the TSA checkpoint with the boarding pass of a cancelled flight. Airline customer service is usually after security, and a more efficient place to look for help than the ticket counter. Airline clubs (not helpful for Southwest passengers) are also one of the best places to get help when you flight is cancelled, and those are usually past security.

Still, for stranded Southwest passengers it may not make sense to wait in long lines. Southwest agents have only limited ability to rebook passengers, onto seats that aren’t available and on flights that may not operate.

Unfortunately passengers need to take matters into their own hands, hold out hope for a Southwest flight or buy a ticket on another carrier if they can, look to credit card trip and baggage delay coverage if they can, and see a reimbursement of ‘reasonable’ costs from Southwest.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. WOW… who in the hell is running the show? Like I said B4 the only thing that can happen now is a crash. Whoz maintaining the planes?

  2. If I were the lawyer in this video, I’d file an involuntary bankruptcy petition against Southwest and let the courts decide. The management of Southwest, at all levels, appears to incapable of getting things sorted out.

  3. “By the way, even if your flight is cancelled you can proceed through the TSA checkpoint with the boarding pass of a cancelled flight.”

    While the above is still the case at US, don’t be surprised if they try to put a stop this kind of thing in much the same way as one or more airports in Europe have stopped accepting boarding passes for cancelled flights when trying to access the security screening checkpoint to get airside.

  4. Dont know its veracity but this just appeared on FB:
    Katie Jane Goode
    Sorry for all my friends traveling this week…
    Read this today from a Southwest Pilot:
    “I don’t know what to say. Southwest Airlines has imploded. Their antiquated software system has completely fried. Planes are parked. Crews are stranded in the airports with the passengers, volunteering to take the passengers in the parked planes but the software won’t accept it. Phone lines are overwhelmed for both passenger and crews. I personally spent over two hours trying to get ahold of anyone in the company last night after midnight. A Captain and I did manage to get the one flight put together on Christmas night and got people home. Kudos to the ops agent and dispatcher for making it happen. We had to manually input a lot of the data and it took over an hour to coordinate with dispatch going back and forth running numbers.
    We spent hours trying to get the company to answer and get us a hotel when we landed as they’re all sold out. We were only put in a call que for hours before hanging up. I found one hotel with 4 rooms and we bought our own rooms at 2:30am. I even paid for a Flight Attendants room. We literally have crews sleeping on the airport floors all over the country with nowhere to go. Crews have been calling to fly anyone, anywhere, but the company says the system needs a reset. They have effectively shut down the operations for the rest of year, running 1/3 of the flights so that they can let the computer find and locate the crews and aircraft. Gate agents are in tears. They’ve been yelled at, cussed at, slapped and spit on. Flight attendants have been taking a beating. The frontline employees have had little support or communication. Terminals are standing room only with people having been there for days. Pilot lounges are packed with pilots ready to fly and nowhere to go.
    Embarrassing is an understatement. I’m going on my second of three days off, still stuck on the east coast and still expected to show up in the morning with no schedule. And I’m willing to fly all day if needed. Because that’s nothing compared to the passengers needing meds in bags that are lost and mothers traveling with kids, having been stuck for the same amount of days in the terminal. In 24 years, I’ve never seen anything like this. Heads need to roll! Rumors on media are floating that there is a lack of crews and pilots are staging sick calls. Absolutely not true at all. This is a computer system meltdown. Thousands of crew members are sitting in hotels and airports with nowhere to go. This airline has failed miserably.”

  5. I have a general bias against regulation, but this kind of behavior cannot be tolerated, particularly after accepting a large handout of taxpayer money. If you take the government cheese, expect to get milked.

    This certainly feels like a legacy technology crash, where all of a sudden the systems you’ve been using no longer support you; they own you.

  6. Even if technically correct about non-ticketed status, as a matter of public relations, airport and/or SWA supervisors/management should have been those communicating the message.

    On one video, a SWA announcement stated, “90 percent of our flights have been canceled. Please go home.” But, they really needed face-to-face interaction.

  7. CEO needs to go. Inexcusable as to the negative impact on its customers, a result of poor decision making and leadership. What’s up with the board of directors as well?

  8. Eliminate their pensions. Claw back the last 10 years of compensation from all management. Jail this police officer.

  9. Guess the only two career choices for the authoritarian-in-training cop in this video was swing-shift security guard at a mobile home park or the Nashville PD.

  10. With the number of customers who’ll choose not to fly Southwest again, there may not be anything left for the FAA and Feds to go after. Call for all the regulations that you want, but no one regulates business better than consumers.

  11. Surprised that anyone is defending the process if not the officer. Try to sleep or grab a hot meal in the nonsecure area or indeed find a corner to stretch out in. Perhaps he intends to direct passengers to the Hertz counter where a rental car might be accompanied by an arrest and a warm stay in jail.
    It is astonishing how corporations have extended poor customer service to downright abuse of their customers. I suspect that Southwest (and Hertz) will spend a bundle on compensation to be paid by their insurers and taxpayers in the form of deductions.

  12. Just glad the video’s “authoritarian-in-training cop” — who sounds like he may be an immigrant from the MENA region in this video — didn’t start making crazy arrests.

    And about the lawyer in the video, she did a good job of staying calm and being persistent in a way that she can’t be easily mischaracterized as “hostile” or “angry”.

    About this airline — and the rest of our airlines — this should be a wake-up call that the US needs to have a version of the EC 261/2004 regulation because publicly-traded companies’ management and board of directors won’t get their act together otherwise since kicking the can down the road while maximizing short-term personal gains (for senior management and the BOD) is the order of the day given the compensation arrangements in play for such figures and the preferential tax treatment they get by getting compensated way too much in the form of non-salaried income.

  13. I really hope they don’t allow SW to merge with another airline to make it appear the problem has been solved. We don’t need further industry consolidation. We need more smaller nimble entities who have to compete in every market that they serve.

  14. @David P, highly regulated industries trend toward heavy consolidation. That’s not an aberration—it’s a feature of the regulatory environment. The oligopoly that exists in such heavily-regulated industries lobbies to further entrench their Fed-provided protection racket.

    For all the talk of airline deregulation, airlines are still among the most regulated of companies. Too many barriers to entry and potential alternatives (like high-speed rail) won’t go anywhere because of the other regulatory schemes that regulate those alternatives.

  15. If a cop tried that with me, I would threaten legal action on the spot. He would know in no uncertain terms that, yes, he could arrest me but lose his job, be open to A MULTIMILLION-DOLLAR lawsuit for wrongful arrest and the department to a separate civil/criminal trial AND I’M JUST GETTING STARTED.

    Personal injury attorneys get a (sometimes deserved) reputation for chasing ambulances but, I know of at least 3, without even opening the phone book (yes, I still have one) who would take my case on contingency and win MILLIONS in compensatory damages plus millions more in punitive damages.

    Hyperbole? Let’s remember the settlement which Hertz just made with victims of wrongful arrest. Yes, the money helps but NOTHING will compensate the expectant mother who miscarried from the stress of sitting in general population while being innocent beyond the shadow of the doubt.

    Faux crises of this sort must be LITIGATED to the fullest extent of the law.

  16. As far as the actual law is concerned, if a property owner or their authorized representative tells you to leave and you don’t, then you are, in fact, trespassing under Tennessee law (and the laws of other states are mostly similar, as far as I know.) The relevant law in TN is TN Code 39-14-405. While MNAA owns the airport, not Southwest, and I doubt that Southwest’s gate agents are authorized to ask people to leave the secure area of airport, I’d be very surprised if the airport police aren’t authorized to do so. If they tell you to leave and you don’t, then you probably could be arrested for trespassing. While what the officer said about their tickets wasn’t accurate, that isn’t especially relevant to whether or not someone is trespassing.

    I’m not sure what their reason was for telling people to leave the secure area. Could have been anything from power-tripping gate agents to angry disrupted passengers abusing gate agents to simply too many people airside as a result of the major flight disruptions at one of the busiest times of year. As with any public building, the Fire Marshall does establish limits on how many people can be there at one time. Depending on time of day, it could also have been time for the airside to close to passengers who don’t have a reservation on a flight out that night. The Nashville airport’s airsides do close for a few hours each night. But, regardless of the above, the officer is at least correct that if someone authorized by MNAA to do so asks you to leave and you remain, then you are trespassing and they can indeed arrest you.

  17. Having worked in airports for nearly 20 years mostly as management, the officer is not too far off base albeit carried out poorly and his communication skills leave a lot to be desired.

    If you do not have a boarding pass for a flight that is actually departing, your screening by TSA and the background run on you is technically now invalid. I have called police to remove passengers for trespassing in the secure area before, but that was on very rare occasion and the passenger was getting way out of line (screaming obscenities, banging on closed jetway door, following gate agent to another flight and harassing them there – the kinds of things that most people would agree are not acceptable behaviors). It sounds like here the agents just didn’t want to deal with it and the passengers, probably rightfully so, did not want to go outside and join another line of unknown wait time. TSA can (and many times will) deny access to the concourse with a boarding pass from a canceled flight. It is well within their (civil) regulations.

  18. Industries that are on courses toward heavy consolidation tend to become more heavily regulated industries, as do industries where there is a major public safety concern and use of public resources. But the government tends to become increasingly subject to regulatory capture by the industry kingpins, more so as market concentration gets worse and worse for consumers.

    The oligopoly which exists in such heavily-regulated industries lobby government (and business partners) to further entrench their industry-enabled protection racket. The government is literally the cart behind the horse.

    “Too many barriers to entry and potential alternatives (like high-speed rail) won’t go anywhere because of the other regulatory schemes that regulate those alternatives”? Talk about blaming the cart for the horse. The barriers to entry getting in the way of “potential alternatives” are driven first and foremost by industry kingpins and their business allies crowding out the likelihood of “potential alternatives” getting funded to compete with them.

  19. @Corbett

    Look up qualified immunity. You can try to sue the cops all you want and your case will be immediately dismissed due to qualified immunity. Granted, your case would be dismissed anyway for lack of evidence in this case, as the police can indeed arrest you for trespassing if you’re asked to leave and don’t. The only lawyers who would likely be taking a case for your there would be a defense attorney.

    The thing with Hertz was completely different – that was indeed unlawful – but, even then, I’m not aware of any of the police involved ever facing any consequences, thanks to qualified immunity. Hertz itself, on the other hand, does not have qualified immunity, so they can be sued.

  20. The issue with antiqued software isn’t a BOD type issue. Where are the heads of operations and technology? I work in financial services and these would be considered routine upgrades.

  21. I think I am done with traveling since it has gotten too hazardous. If heard that if I drive my Hertz car rental to the airport I may get arrested for car theft, or worse yet arrested for arson as their electric rentals seem to spontaneously burst into flames. Then if I make it to the gate for my Southwest flight, it will likely be cancelled and subject to arrest for trespassing. It is enough to make me just want to walk to the nearest pier and take a cruise ship, although they are no longer testing for COVID before boarding and my partner just recovered from 21 days of COVID picked up at last embarkation. I would take a train, but last October there were 6 domestic derailments in 36 hours. That just leaves taking the bus, you know the same vehicle that ran off the road into a river killing several passengers in Spain this week. It seems the only safe options for me to travel anymore are by bicycle, horse or foot.

  22. @Gary — can you please follow-up on this story. I’m very curious what ultimately happened to the passengers. Did they have to leave? What was the response from the PD and Southwest?

    Amazing !

  23. How come cops don’t get trained in customer service or public service – only in shooting to kill or beating people down 101??? And why do we as the customers of the police put up with this year after year?

  24. @Gary, a cancelled flight doesn’t mean your ticket is no longer in force, right? How else would an airline know to book you on a different flight if there were no longer a valid ticket?

    If WN asked the police to clear the area of all these people then I’d think some sort of lawsuit would be warranted, no?

  25. I can see the merit of police being on hand to avoid thug like behavior from some passengers that decide to handle things inappropriately

    Because ya’all know some knucklehead will lose their mind and act uncivilized

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