What Does Southwest Owe Customers For Cancelling Holiday Flights?

Southwest has cancelled an unprecedented number of flights over the holidays in a complete operational meltdown. They lacked the staff needed to handle disruptions that may have been triggered, in part, by weather. But mostly they lacked the systems to recover. And they’re cancelling two thirds of their flights. Every. Single. Day.

Amidst all of this their phone systems went down. They were directing customers to their website, but for a time customers couldn’t log in there, or on their mobile app.

Things got so bad in Phoenix that the airline made an announcement saying everyone waiting in long lines for help? Yeah, don’t bother. Everyone should just go home.

Here’s a Southwest Airlines gate agent telling a customer they’re not entitled to anything, and commitments to the Department of Transportation don’t apply. You get nothing!

So what does Southwest owe customers?

  • Where Southwest Airlines is at fault for the cancellation they say they’ll provide hotel accommodations and meals.

  • They can say that this is all because of weather but that’s simply not true. Delta cancelled 8% of flights, United 5%,, JetBlue 6% and American Airlines fewer than 1% of flights on Monday. Even beleagured Air Canada managed to cancel ‘only’ 5% of its schedule. And airlines throughout North America faced weather similar to Southwest.

  • Their own CEO acknowledged their IT systems weren’t capable of recovering quickly from the disruptions. They lacked employees and systems and that’s why the meltdown cascaded even after weather abated.

The Department of Transportation seems to be thinking along these same lines.

CEO Bob Jordan acknowledges problems with crew scheduling, and that cancellations are to “tak[e..] pressure off the system.” He also explains that this is due to a failure so far to invest in better tools. Weather gets blame to, along with regulations. But those are framed as constraints around which they need better tools to solve for.

I’ve seen calls for the Department of Transportation to require airlines to ‘interline’ to be able to put passengers on other airlines when cancelling flights. Southwest doesn’t do this. However other airlines were full, too, and this wouldn’t have helped much.

Instead I’d point out the effective immunity that airlines have from many types of lawsuits, pre-empted by the Airline Deregulation Act. That should change. Allow lawsuits for breaches of a carrier’s duty of good faith and fair dealing, and class action lawyers will provide the incentive needed for airlines to ensure they deliver transportation when they sell transportation.

None of which helps passengers right now. Often I suggest buying a backup itinerary with cash or miles, in advance of important travel, and then cancelling (redeposit miles free or retain a credit for a cash ticket) if you can do this. But it’s too late for that now. Buying a new itinerary now may not even be possible, or may be cost prohibitive, because there are so many people chasing too few seats.

So skip the trip if you can. Look to other forms of transportation if you can. And look at the credit card used for purchasing your tickets, if you don’t have travel insurance, because you may have coverage like trip delay, which may pay for hotel and meal costs, and bag delay which may cover up to $100 a day for 5 days for purchases due to missing luggage. Bear in mind that weather and mechanical delays are covered, usually lack of available crew is not.

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. I don’t support big government or excessive regulations, but Southwest needs to be held accountable for their actions.

  2. @Gary. Your advice to book contingency reservations (agreed, too late now) is further compounding the issue and is making it even harder for people trying to get anywhere, especially those canceled on WN just wanting to go home. It’s part of the issue in creating fares right now that are off the charts or completely selling out entire city pairs. I am paying an outrageous price to get to PHX from DFW on UA this week via DEN for a meeting on a less than ideal routing and schedule and for $900 in coach one way – as an example. With so many people across the country booking backup flights using miles, or paying full fare refundable prices it just adds to the problem. Please, stop giving this advice as it only adds to the bottleneck and creates even further price gouging which, right now, is verging on inhumane given the holidays for many. Sure, some will do it anyway, but if you encourage this to the general public as you did a few days ago you are just adding to the problem.

  3. This will happen again and again until there are consequences beyond a few days of terrible publicity.

  4. Everyone knows weather and acts of God are not getting you compensation on domestic flight

    Whatever you get if anything is goodwill

  5. When all the dust clears, it may be time to look at breaking up SW into 2 or 3 smaller airlines. SW is the largest domestic carrier and that is simply too much capacity in the hands of a single carrier. Besides more carriers should lead to more competition. Something that has been going in the other direction for the last bunch of years.

  6. Beyond the question of what LUV owes its customers is the question of what it would make business sense to do. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of customers who have been massively inconvenienced, the airline’s troubles are on every newscast and the front pages of newspapers around the country. The public relations damage is immeasurable. I would imagine that any crisis managment professional would be advising them to spend money on its customers now to change the narrative about the incompetent, uncaring airline and argue that spending money now will be much less expensive than the revenue loss from future potential passengers booking elsewhere.

  7. Eventually CEO Bob Jordan will deliver a message to the hundreds of thousands of SWA passengers he has stranded and abandoned across the USA (before the B.O.D. fires him and his entire SMT). He can start by posting a message on the web site…a full week late LMAO.

  8. @Mets Fan. You seem to be missing the point here that Gary spelled out. If you correlate the cancellation rates at the other airlines (most of which have similar systems affected by weather) there is no reason other than complete operational ineptness that led to WN’s meltdown. Weather affected everyone. Yet only WN has had issues like this. The rest on the worst days were having minimal disruptions and most everyone by now has long been accommodated. It is NOT weather anymore. That ship sailed a few days ago.

  9. @stuart Your problems trying to get from DFW, DAL or anywhere in Texas to PHX this week are not necessarily because of backup flights being booked. It’s because TCU is playing in the Fiesta Bowl in Phoenix on Saturday. Every nonstop & directs from DFW & DAL to PHX booked up immediately upon the game’s announcement on 12/4 and most of the nonstops & directs from HOU, IAH & AUS booked up that day too.

  10. What are the chances some members of the ground handling and flight attendant unions, both at impasses with SW over contracts, took a bit extra sick time to show how easily things can tip?

  11. I had a Southwest flight get canceled 45 hours prior to departure early this morning.

    Yet, the flight still shows as valid in my Southwest account.

    This is pathetic.

  12. @Stuart

    It’s so rare that the comments posted on this site are intelligent and on point. Generally, they’re a mix of right wing drivel and angry rantings.

    Thank you for both of your excellent posts on this thread.

  13. @Stuart

    It is weather. Flights and crew were dislocated because of extremely bad weather in different areas of the US. SW stock may be impaired short term and they may lose customers due to the issue which is probably a combination of staffing issues and weather.

    My comment was more to Gary’s headline of what does the airline owe the passenger. They need to be booked on the next available flight. Unfortunately that’s it

  14. @Eric, that may be. But almost $1K from IND to WAS tomorrow? There are events all over the country that can affect pricing at any time – but there is no doubt that this is a ripple effect adding to it even more.

  15. I NEVER fly in December. But if I did and I got stuck in the SouthWest conflagration in a hell-hole like Phoenix, I’d try these escape routes:
    1) Uber to Scottsdale and get a rental car and get out to maybe PSP, ONT or LAX.
    2) Try booking a cheap international flight to Mexico City and back to a US gateway.
    3) Greyhound Bus
    4) Amtrak
    5) Pound sand
    6) Go back and read thousands of old VFTW articles until I went crazy, and they put me in a padded cell.
    7) Go to an I-10 on-ramp and thumb a ride.
    8) None of the above, because I don’t fly in December. Too many drunks and Idiots out there.

  16. Boy did I get screwed by Southwest!!! I made reservations three months prior (like most people). We got our boarding passes Sunday morning, all looked as going well. Then at around 7 PM thar not a notice came through that our flight from BWI to IAH (Houston) was canceled…that sudden and with less than a 24 notice to cancel car rental and hotel rental. Now I am out $1000.00 for a hotel I can’t get to and a rental I can’t drive.
    We tried frantically to reschedule both on line with zero success and resorted to their 1-800 number. We were on hold for 3 hours until a customer representative would finally take the call. The best they could do was offer us a flight 5 DAYS LATER….ONE DAY BEFORE ARE SCHEDULED FLIGHT HOME. WHATS WORST IS THERE WERE MANY FLIGHTS LEAVING BWI TO HOUSTON BEFORE AND AFTER OUR FLIGHT AND THEY WERE NOT CANCELED. JUST OUR 6:45 AM FLIGHT OUT OF BWI WAS CANCELED. WHAT KIND OF LOGIC. MANAGEMENT PRINCIPLES IS SOUTHWEST RUNNING OFF OF…..”no mission statement today folks”!!!!!

  17. I bought a back up for this morning with American out of Miami but fortunately the Southwest crew pulled through and got us home 4 hours late at 1am last night. Made for a long day leaving Nassau was 15 hours door to door to home, should have been 10 (one extra hour for me was getting to the airport earlier than necessary since we had different flight times). Disappointing but would have been easy for them to give up on flight leaving at 11 pm with different pilots than planned. The rest of my family were on Delta and they made it home only 30 minutes late!

  18. Since the pandemic the new watchword in corporate process design has been “resiliency” — innovating ways for your organization to take a punch, foreseen or otherwise. But not at Southwest, apparently, even in the face of a lavishly forecast weather crisis during a holiday that is flagged on everyone’s calendars. For a niche airline to collapse this way is one thing. For the country’s largest passenger carrier, a veritable national utility, to fall apart in zero-resilient fashion, whining as it fails that it doesn’t have the right tech, lacks the right systems, etc. is intolerable. Has this management learned nothing from three long years of operational chaos? It should be replaced.

  19. I demand a congressional investigation into Southwest Airlines actions. Gross out right mismanagement which appears to be from the top down!
    They created liabilities with lityle to no concern to it obligations (customers), as if treaded like cattle.

  20. Does anyone know what the applicable case law on defining an act of god in an analogous service business is? This is America. There has to be case law. There must be a test for evaluating a counterparty’s claim and method for evaluating when the claim should reasonably lapse or expire. There are limits. A corporate clown cannot cite a really bad thunderstorm in Tulsa back in ’63 as grounds for cancelling a flight today. I’ll acknowledge these mental midgets can rightly claim the dog ate their homework for a day. May be a couple days. But for every day until the date they decide like opening a book and actually doing the work? In the words of our philosopher King, C’mon man. To executives at AA, DL and UA, get your compadre in line or the public will be coming with regulation against all of you.

  21. @CW – I’m probably the opposite end of the political spectrum from you, but as Gary sort of points out, in some sense airlines are actually _protected_ by big government right now in the form of the Airline Deregulation Act. Repeal/replace that with something that still reasonably respects interstate commerce, without shielding them from practically all civil liability, and torts would sort out their business practices so fast it’d be shocking.

  22. This story is not about politics.
    It is about a massive operational failure that has been building for years.
    Southwest has been able to get by with stuff that other airlines have not been able to according to FAA inspectors who say that the FAA’s senior leadership does not act on concerns brought by federal inspectors that are actioned when dealing w/ other airlines.
    When there are questions about an airline’s compliance wiht safety protocols, it isn’t a surprise that the rest of their operation can so easily fall apart.

    There are regulations that are not being followed. The DOT sent the first salvo in letting LUV know that it will be enforcing LUV’s commitment,

    and it is way past time for the US to require full interlining of tickets in an emergency situation like this. Other airline flights are going out w/ empty seats because people have booked backup space.
    Many LUV passengers could be on other airline flights if they could access LUV tickets, even if those passengers are accepted on a standby basis.

    This disaster will be the last straw for widespread consumer protections for airline passengers.

  23. What does WN owe passengers ?
    1. A very thorough review by the Board of the executive team. Changes needed.
    2.Interline agreements
    3. The Truth
    4. An apology
    5. Refunds
    6. Goodwill gestures

  24. @Mets Fan in NC

    You insist that the Southwest problem is just weather.

    Again, as Stuart posted earlier, then why isn’t the meltdown also happening with other airlines? None of the others are having remotely the same level of disruption.

    And as I posted earlier, why is my cancelled Southwest flight still showing as valid and confirmed on my Southwest account page?

  25. Well I was one of the “lucky” ones if you can call it that. RT trip of STL-BNA-CHS
    Traveled on the 23rd and got there 5 hours late but did arrive.
    Returning was a complete mess. Long story short, my original flight got cancelled and subsequent rebooking eventually cancelled.
    Booked a same day ticket on AA for “only” $230 and made it back relatively unscathed. If I would have waited on SWA, they didn’t show any availability to get me home until Saturday. Thanks to AA, got back on Monday, my scheduled day.
    I’m not swearing off SWA, but I will think twice before booking my wife on them.

  26. It is time to once again hold airlines accountable for their failures. Weather and some other conditions are unavoidable, but many other situations are caused by the under staffing, lack of training and, or customer service.
    While southwest isn’t a new airline, their failure to invest in back up systems to avoid major calamities results in melt downs. These are foreseeable.
    Too many of the air travel companies, are quick to cancel flights, say good luck to their customers and then create a hassle for getting funds returned.
    There need to be requirements for these companies to create reasonable contracts of carriage and means to enforce them.

  27. Airlines are not subject to compensate passengers for cancelation because of bad weather it’s mother nature and not their fault. Some people need to check their flights before heading to the airports. We’re in the winter season anything can happen.

  28. @ Tom K

    There are operational snafus at SW as well. Acts of God can have cascade effects that are still covered as Acts of God

    Flight gets snowed in causing flight crews and planes to be out of position, causing time outs for crew with no replacements available or crew maxing out on hours the union allows them to fly. That is all on top of employees having scheduled holiday time off and not being willing to come in.

    It stinks but SW is more vulnerable since there crews and planes are in domestic cities impacted by the storms.

  29. I’m curious, does any of this go back to Reagan and deregulation? Can this be remedied by Congress?

  30. @Metsfan
    IT is not the weather. Here in St. Louis the weather has been fine. 158 flights cancelled yesterday, the 26th, at Lambert. 151 of them were Southwest flights. The other 7 flights were scattered among 7 different airlines. Numbers are looking the same for today. My daughter and her kids flight was cancelled yesterday. Couldn’t rebook online as system wouldn’t allow it. Finally it did but there were no flights out til Saturday.
    Not okay for a single mom to miss a week of work. Waited on hold for over 3 hours and finally gave up. Rebooked them on a Delta non stop home for $335 each. I am expecting Southwest to pay for them. Especially now that DOT is involved. Do you really think DOT would get involved if it was all due to weather???

  31. Southwest CEO and his officers should all be removed.

    They made the decision not to upgrade their logistical systems and maintain adequate staffing to handle disruptions, and that clearly shows in their cancellation rates being 10x higher than any other airline. These reckless decisions were made with profits in mind, knowing full well the risk. The system broke down in every way it could, including customer service, and those on top responsible for organizing the company this way need to be removed.

  32. David P, please do not comment on something you know absolutely nothing about. Having been a part of this industry as a career, let me tell you that the day or even two days after any holiday, the airlines get an enormous amount of “sick” calls and “no shows” because there are not enough people working at these jobs who have any remote idea of what a good work ethic is. It is basically the attitude of letting someone else do it.

    If you are so learned please give insight into how to instill a good work ethic in anyone under the age of 50.

  33. The utter failure of “laissez-faire” economics and prima facia evidencd of why markets fail without regulation.

    And no, adding a regulation requiring airlines to be subject to a duty of good faith and fair dealing is wildly insufficient, because damages wouldn’t need to be paid out and citizens will continue to bear the cost of business failures. This is a really bad regulatory proposal — an expert should know better that tnis. Only EU-style penalties align incentives.

  34. I gave up on SWA when they canceled out 45 day advance ticket from POM to SAN. Cancelled had to drive to BOS pay the fees. No compensation no thing, been off my list for 7 years.

    My big question is how long and how much os it going to take to get all the bags back to their customers.

    Their business model as well as reputation just went down the toilet

    Hang em high.

  35. My Southwest Airlines Hawaii Interisland Flight had been canceled 4hrs prior to departure. Had to scramble and book Hawaiian Air flight so do not miss flight back to mainland. It did not look due to the weather, was 80 and no rain.

  36. Somewhat overlooked, I think, in the commentary is AS, which is still running a double-digit cancellation rate — today’s 10% is the best I’ve seen since the disruptions started. And, they too, based on my daughter’s experience with multiple cancellations and a stranding in SAN, offered nothing in comp at the time. Subsequently she’s received an offer of $100 credit voucher for 1 of the 3 cancellations.

  37. What Southwest owes customers is to get on board a push for the US to have a US law/regulation equivalent to EC 261/2004. Actually, all the US airlines in the US owe it to the consumers.

    Unless and until the airlines are much more on the line to pay up money to travelers inconvenienced by such airline operations, the the problems for travelers will go from worse to worse. The airlines will otherwise continue to internalize the profits from causing consumer inconvenience and do so without having to fully internalize the costs from their short-term profit-delivering, shareholder-value-enhancing, market capitalization-maximizing operational decisions that make for more extreme problems for travelers.

  38. Paul White,

    “I’m curious, does any of this go back to Reagan and deregulation? Can this be remedied by Congress?” It doesn’t go back to Ronald Reagan. Deregulation goes back to President Jimmy Carter and Senator Ted Kennedy.

    What Congress should do is give Americans a US equivalent of EC 261/2004 and make it easier for consumers to win big damage lawsuits against the airlines. Unfortunately, Congress is way too buddy buddy with the airlines — just like the business lobby as a whole that is very much against trial lawyers, class action suits and big awards.

  39. @ Christian +1 we need something like EU261 where financial consequences will make it a business decision to not skimp on IT and recovery plans.

  40. Suggesting the “solution” is to allow two-bit, ambulance chasing attorneys to sue the airlines is beyond stupidity. A bunch of headline seeking congress clowns will continue to not focus on the real pressing problems facing the US and instead have a field day making a spectacle of this and doing little to nothing to solve the current or future problems. The real solution is the public massively boycotting WN until they can demonstrate they are operationally on par with the main line carriers.

  41. Thé call for class action is from Gary, a well known anti-regulator. That’ll get people a fraction of what this cost them in hard dollars-maybe-and years down the road. And it will not set a standard of conduct and penalties for failure to meet that standard on an industry-wide basis, The WN meltdown is nuts but we’ve been seeing horrible behavior from airlines since COVID hit-failed ops, refund delays, on and on.

    We need a formal order with a set of rules that airlines must follow and a standard cost to them if they fail to meet that standard. Call it regulation if you like but if an airline knew a stranded passenger left to sleep in the airport would cost them, say, $2,500, they might put someone on avoiding that. Not In three or four years, but next week.

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