Southwest Airlines Offering Some Passengers Just 5% Of Their Requested Reimbursements

Southwest Airlines expects the cancellation of 16,700 flights over the holidays to cost them up to $825 million though the exact amount depends on how much passengers seek reimbursement for after having to find other means of travel – and how much Southwest actually approves in claims.

While the Department of Transportation is pressuring Southwest not just to provide the refunds, but also to do so quickly (noting that credit card payments must be refunded within 7 days), the sheer volume of requests is taking time to work through and also invariably means that some passengers get stuck in a Kafkaesque bureaucracy. And even DOT says that consumer complaints are only owned “substantive responses…within 60 days.”

While some passengers are thrilled by goodwill gestures of 25,000 Rapid Rewards points on top of reimbursements, others who believe they’re due those points haven’t received them. And some people who have submitted request for ‘reasonable’ expenses (and Southwest hasn’t told passengers what ‘reasonable’ means) don’t feel they and the airline have a meeting of the minds over how much of their cash outlay should be returned to them.

Would you believe we’re seeing reports of passengers being offered only 5% of what they’ve requested, and in one case just $9?

It’s difficult to know how much a given passenger should have been reimbursed without seeing the details of their claim. Certainly many passengers will receive less than they’re entitled to due to paperwork deficiencies. Perhaps they haven’t submitted receipts, or the person reviewing the claim makes errors. It’s hard to imagine anyone whose flight was cancelled by Southwest, though, only incurred $9 in eligible expenses as a result. Even making a trip in vain to the airport and back is going to cost more than that for nearly everyone, without regard to hotel, meals, or alternate transportation. But some passengers won’t be adept enough at navigating the bureaucracy, and those same passengers may not be well-suited to pursuing DOT complaints against the airline either.

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, 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. My detailed email and receipt for one-way rental card and one fuel up was fully paid. Didn’t include meals or other items (expenses that i would have normally paid) that would have given someone a reason to second-look, second-guess the submission.

  2. Not surprising. When was the last time the Southwest CEO and Board done the right thing? Forget about the $1B cash loss from this incident, the long-term damage to the SWA brand far-exceeds (2X) this amount. CEO Bob Jordan and his sycophants are simply not up to the task.

    Not a single member of the C Suite or Board at SWA with an IT background says it all. No CTO? No problem!

  3. The more public the complaints get, the more likely customers will get what they’re after. As a consumer, you must be prepared to stand up for yourself. There’s no incentive for a business to just treat you like royalty when you’re only spending less than 0.0000000001% of their annual revenues.

    All that said, consumers still offer swifter, more distributed regulation of businesses than any government entity can hope to muster.

  4. I’m sure the requests are unreasonable. Also, why would SW reimburse anything for meals? I mean people are going to eat anyway and pay for that whether at the airport or not. I really do hope they take an extremely aggressive line on reimbursements as those are above and beyond what they are legally responsible for and many people will pad the costs (or stay at more upscale accommodations) because they think someone else will pay. Gotta love the moochers that always have their hand out – stuff happens people, suck it up and deal with it instead of looking for someone else to foot the bill.

  5. I have yet to file my claim, but would love to hear other’s opinion.

    My in-laws travelled from overseas to join our family for a one week southwest trip – Vegas, Grand Canyon, Zion, etc. Is it reasonable to ask Southwest to reimburse for their international airfare? The primary reason they travelled here was for the southwest trip. My father-in-law is a disabled vet and requires a wheelchair, so it was not possible for us to organize another trip with them. They ended up just staying home with us for the whole time.

  6. Amateurish to put it bluntly. What do you expect from rapping F/A’s, and herding people like cattle onto their aircraft as fast as possible. Turning an aircraft as quickly as possible calls for wearing a Hazmat suite while flying on this clowny carrier. Drop a few
    Million bucks on IT, and come on into the new Millennium.

  7. Spoke with a friend last night, he was stranded at home so he had no expenses to pay out. 4pax, WN refunded his flights, $300 voucher each, 25k RR points each. Quite a haul for not taking a trip

  8. Plenty of examples over on Flyertalk (Southwest forum) of both things happening. People being made whole and other not so much.

    So far for me, I’ve received my 2, 25,000 point vouchers and had my A-list extended to 12/31 as my 25th qualifying flight was cancelled. Now I’m waiting to see if I get my 2 AA tickets reimbursed to get back home. Only $223 each and these were booked same day travel. Pretty reasonable I would say.

  9. @AC,

    Sure you senior executive of SW! Whats your definition of “more upscale accommodations” or are you saying people should only be reimbursed for staying at motel 6 or even better different passengers who are strangers share their room? This was not a “weather” related meltdown so there is liability and any expenses even meals wouldn’t have come up if the flights went as planned.

  10. We flew out to Norfolk on Dec 22nd. We got a call at 2:35 a.m. on 27th to go home. We tried to get another flight but no way. We had to rent a car to drive back home. Because it was a thousand miles we had to stay all night in a hotel. (Won’t go into that as it was also a nightmare!) We came home the 28th. I filed all our receipts including gas, Hotel and of course ( rental car $700 The car rental was higher as we had to pay a big drop off charge!) We did not include food receipts. The total was close to $975 dollars. We received a notice that they would give us $235 dollars. Didn’t even cover all the gas and hotel! The only other thing we got was a message saying they would reimburse our C.C for the half of our lost flight. We complained back and supposedly they will review it. Waiting on that now. We shall see!

  11. Today I received just over $800 (my full requested amount) that covered an American Airlines flight, 2 meals, hygiene items from Walgreens, and was upgraded to A list for 2023 so I’m satisfied.

  12. Matt,
    there are abundant stories of passengers taking 3 months or more to get compensation under EU261 and WN passengers may still get higher payouts.
    The ability to spend your own money at will and get reimbursed doesn’t exist under EU261

  13. How exactly do I go about getting refunded for my 2 SW tickets and minimal expenses as well as obtain 25,000 miles?

  14. My daughter and 2 kids had their flight cancelled early in the morning of the 26th. I quickly rebooked them for the next day on a Delta flight at the cost of 100,000 Delta miles. Within 1 day after I sent them an email, I had $1,000.00 voucher and my initial amount of points I had used to book the Southwest flight refunded and the miles back in my account. Then a week later I received 3 25,000 point vouchers which I deposited in my account. No receipts for the Delta tickets as they just took my word for it. Perhaps because I contacted them within 24 hours and my situation was not as complicated as others was the reason why my issue was quickly resolved to my satisfaction.

  15. We were burned by Southwest on Christmas Eve., We had an Airbnb booked and $300 of groceries delivered for our group of 12. We were to arrive 1st with the rest coming the next 2 days. We drove so gas and meals on the road. You have to eat anyway don’t cut it. It took 2 full days to drive from WI to TX. And a return trip. I will go to the DOT and class action suits. Anyone know how I join a class action suit? Im pissed. We missed Christmas and may don kb law recently had a stroke at 44 years old so we really needed to be there. Not 3 days later.?

  16. We submitted receipts and a detailed explanation for 2 nights’ lodging, meals, some ground transportation, and extra days’ airport parking. We’ve received an email that all will be paid. I have no complaints (other than about the canceled flights themselves).

  17. I’ve had travel woes caused by airline cancellations over the years and the compensation is a mixed bag. Sometimes I’m overcompensated for my troubles and sometimes undercompensated. Kind of how the world rolls, and seems to be the case here. If I was significantly undercompensated, I’d try to get Southwest to review my submission and pay out more..

  18. I received a full refund for my flight and a $200 voucher as well as the 25,000 points. Southwest also refunded my hotel room that I needed to drive to my destination within 5 days. . I have no complaints.

  19. I got 100% of what I asked for. I didn’t claim I was forced to buy a Cadillac to drive home, just rental car and ubers

  20. *meals not included.
    They stranded my son and I when we could have had meals at home with the food I already paid for, but won’t reimburse that expense? I don’t know about anyone else, but if I had known I would need to bring enough food for the 15 hour surprise adventure offered passengers, I would have planned ahead. At least airport staff at HOU handed out water for the 5+ hour wait in line. I’m not going to accept their offer until and unless I am FULLY reimbursed for every penny of extra expense to get myself out of their mess that they forced me (everyone) into. I agreed to pay for a specific service that they failed to provide. Consumer Protection Law requires all expenses to be reimbursed. More expensive food included.

  21. I had to drive from Vancouver Washington to Oakland California to pick up my wife and her travel companion because they were told they were going to be stuck at the Oakland airport for 3 or 4 days. Mind you there were no restaurants on the level at which they were stuck. I submitted all my gas receipts and told them I wanted 57 cents per mile and have yet to hear a single thing from them. I don’t expect I’ll ever get a penny. I sincerely hope this company dies a long slow painful death from losing money.

  22. How can you spend 4k – staying at the Ritz? I read an article a few days ago about another SWA canceled flight, and that family claimed they spent 4k also to drive home from Florida to Oregon. How on earth do you burn that amount of money on a 3 day drive???

  23. Ingebrigtson Paul: Airlines are exempt from lawsuits like you describe. Thank Congress and SCOTUS (Roberts Court) for that.

  24. @Gregg – Northwest v Ginsberg was decided 9-0, and Justice Stephen Breyer (Clinton appointee) was one of the key architects of the Airline Deregulation Act, which was interpreted as pre-empting claims of good faith and fair dealing. So I don’t think framing this as “Roberts Court” is on point.

  25. Southwest was wonderful and timely helping us in refunding our missed flight and rebooking a new flight with the free 25,000 miles they gave us for the trouble. We’ve flown them for over 10 years between DC and OK. This is the first time we’ve had this type of issue. One other was a delay caused by the airport, not Southwest. While I understand frustration of those stuck for days, give them credit for working out the issues and the grace to complete the fix. I’ve had much worse experiences with American Airlines where I paid 8x the fare of Southwest and didn’t get a refund, free flight change or miles to compensate me.

  26. It’s nice to see that a lot of people are getting 100% reimbursement for their extra expenses and 100% refund of their cancelled flight(s).

  27. I just received 100% reimbursement from
    @SouthwestAir for a flight on an alternative airline. This on top of refund of points and the 25k points. Not sure what is different for me.

    Good luck to those still trying to get what they deserve.

  28. I submitted receipts to SW for the extra time (1 day) my wife and I spent in Phoenix when our flight home to San Jose was canceled. I asked for an extra hotel night, extra day on a rental car, reimbursement for an alternate flight to SFO on United, refund of the return SW flight and one dinner. Took about 10 days. They actually overpaid me by about $400. I’m an honest guy so I wrote back to them saying they did overpay and gave them the lower figure I expect to be made whole. We’ll see what happens with this. Don’t know what those other folks asked for who got pennies on the dollar, but I’m impressed…I thought I’d have to fight (and turn it over to the DOT)

  29. I dont see any answers in all these comments. Meals should be paid for for those of us that would have been home but were stranded. But There was no food or drink to be had at the airport. Christmas day in New Orleans. Everything was closed. What airline flies for the $13.50 they refunded me. They sure do ‘t. Who do and where do we file complaints when exhausted with the SW scam?

  30. Same, I sent in a reimbursment request with provided receipts for transportation, 3 days lost wages from my hr, and food. I was offered $81.50. Those miles offered mean nothing. I don’t trust to fly with them anymore.

  31. They should actually pay more than the receipts in many cases. Believe it or not people don’t get unlimited vacation time and people like my family had been planning a vacation for months. My kids were watching YouTube videos and making plans and were all excited. And then? Nothing. This was not an accident. This was literally foreseeable and preventable. They chose not to act and caused people to miss weddings and birthdays and major events that they could have gone to had Southwest been honest. Here’s what I know. If your doctor maims you during a surgery because of negligence you get more than “your money back”. This is no different. They should pay through the nose, not just reimbursement for expenses. They caused people real problems. This was not an accident or an act of God.

  32. I’ve submitted my receipt for my $500ish flight I had to book home from another airline. So far I’ve gotten 4 automated emails saying “Thank you for submitting your request to Southwest Airlines®. We recognize that getting back to you has taken longer than expected. Rest assured that we are diligently working on processing your request as soon as possible. We truly appreciate your patience.” I did get refunded for my SW cancelled flight and the money I paid for early bird check in, along with the 25k points.

  33. Denise,
    google Air Travel Complaints US Dept. of Transportation for links to how to file a complaint with the DOT if you are not satisfied with what Southwest has offered.
    Given that the Sec’y of the DOT has said they will be watching WN very carefully, you should detail what you spent, the receipts you submitted and the response you got from WN including reimbursement.
    I would also make sure you send the complaint you do file to WN to let them know it is coming. But I would suggest that you try to appeal your small reimbursement with WN first but let them know that if they don’t fully reimburse you, then you are going to file a complaint with the DOT. They are moving very fast to get reimbursements out and probably know that some people will not provide adequate documentation or will appeal so stay on top of them.
    And make sure that you are asking for reasonable requests with good documentation. – food you had to buy while enroute with WN, not necessarily before or after you started your trip, extra hotels if you were away from home and stayed at a hotel (not at a relative’s house) plus extra transportation expenses (a ticket on another carrier or rental car to your destination specifically to replace a cancelled WN flight).

    This strategy is true for any airline that can’t fix your problem. Southwest is trying to stay out of more trouble with the feds but there will be mistakes as they work to process reimbursements and some people may not adequately send in complete receipts and documentation. Since some people report they are getting refunds for well-documented cases, you should persist if you are legitimately asking for something the DOT says WN should pay for and if you have sent adequate receipts.

  34. I only submitted for reimbursement for the flights I had to get on a different airline for my son in-law who is active military so he wasn’t considered AWOL after they repeatedly canceled his flights and my daughter to get home. I was nice enough not to submit all the other for their food and other things required for them to stay stranded where they were in Colorado for an extra 4 days.

  35. Southwest paid me back almost $1000. I got stuck in Las Vegas an additional 5 days (4 nights) due to the flight cancellations. I submitted all my receipts for the hotel bookings, the Uber / Lyft rides to and from the airport and between the hotels (because of not knowing how long I’d be, I booked a different hotel for each additional night), and the meals I was able to charge to my rooms.

    There were also a few meals that I now don’t have receipts for, but I can live with that.

  36. I submitted $600 of hotel costs and ticket costs for a missed hockey game. SWA promptly reimbursed 100% of the request, but complete documentation was of course required.

  37. I thought the announcements of the reimbursement process was well publicized and while general, what was going to be reimbursed was fairly clear. Expenses you had as a result of the cancellation. My 3 Uber trips and ticket for American we’re all reimbursed within two weeks of me submitting the claim with receipts. Did the interruption suck? Yes. Should they have updated their tech? Yes. Reports indicate it’s in the works but that didn’t help everyone in December. Crap happens but I felt, my own experience only, they handled the remediation process well.

  38. I received full reimbursement for my canceled flight with SW and they also paid for my American Airlines flight. I provided all receipts and did not ask for meals as we would have needed to eat. American Airlines flight was 2 hours late but we got our daughter here. I only asked SW pay the difference between the ticket as I felt that was fair. As soon as we were notified that the flight was canceled I did not call them I immediately went to another airline. I will continue to fly SW as soon as they are ready.

  39. Submitted receipts for rental car, gas, hotel and food to drive home, all $700 was reimbursed this past week. Everyone else i know who did the same was also reimbursed, so not sure what these other people were missing or tried to get paid for.

  40. @Captain Freedom What in the world are you talking about? Bob Jordan has a computer science degree and has been the CEO for barely a year. The previous CEO, Gary Kelly, is a finance guy and was the one who made significant cuts across the board for investing in tech, etc.

  41. I submitted my reimbursement request on Dec 31 for a Christmas Day OAK-LAX flight; I did include a refund request in that message but then requested that again through the automated refund request. Got the 25,000 apology points quickly. Booked with points and got that refunded within a few days along with the cash fee back to my credit card account.

    But today (almost 3 weeks) I just got the message that it had been “escalated”. I didn’t ask for anything other than transportation – no meals, lodging, local transportation, etc. I actually saved on lodging because the hotel didn’t charge me for the first night after I told them my situation and they just redid the booking for the remainder of my reservation. I ended up getting a ride home from a family member and booked on Amtrak for $63 for the next day. And on the train the day after Christmas a conductor said it was busier than any day after Christmas he’s been through. I took a photo of my boarding pass, Amtrak ticket, and Amtrak receipt and submitted it. I thought it was an easy one but I’m still waiting. I understand that even with an airfare/points refund they’re still reimbursing for replacement transportation.

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