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 is the video of the intercom announcement. Speaker says staffing issues have led to the cancelation of 90% of Sky Harbor Southwest flights. They say they cannot get anyone out for the next 4 days. https://t.co/eULewj44Zm pic.twitter.com/fnlay8sBw5

— Michael Doudna (@MichaelDoudna) December 26, 2022

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!

Flight cancelled. No flight for three days. No voucher, no compensation. #Southwest says it's not subject to Department of Transportation when cancelling. pic.twitter.com/IsSGOT6x5U

— b (@thelamiam) December 26, 2022

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.

USDOT is concerned by Southwest’s unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays & reports of lack of prompt customer service. The Department will examine whether cancellations were controllable and if Southwest is complying with its customer service plan.

— TransportationGov (@USDOT) December 27, 2022

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.

To WN employees from CEO Bob Jordan just a bit ago pic.twitter.com/RM4PMpXp6w

— 🇺🇦 JonNYC 🇺🇦 (@xJonNYC) December 27, 2022

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.

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