Southwest Airlines cancels thousands of flights, leaving travelers in the lurch

Photo (c) Alan Schein Photography - Getty Images

Travelers have rights in these situations -- we spell them out

“I have been a satisfied Southwest customer for years until experiencing the utter chaos that was Southwest over the holiday weekend,” Rhonda, of Fair Oaks, Calif., wrote in a ConsumerAffairs review when her flight was canceled with little notice.

Rhonda told us Southwest waited until the very last minute to notify travelers that their flights were being taken off the board, causing a domino effect of stranded passengers and unattended piles of luggage she said had been “heaved” all around the airport.

“I feel traumatized by the whole experience and I will definitely think twice about flying again!” she said.

But she’s not alone, nor will she be over the next few days. On Tuesday, Southwest canceled 2,570 flights according to FlightAware and has already canceled another 2,477 for Wednesday, and 917 on Thursday.

What to do

So, what is Rhonda to do? In an email to ConsumerAffairs, a Southwest spokesperson said that “when a carrier-controlled delay is a factor, …we already do other-airline rebooking when Southwest is not an option.”

Unfortunately for many fliers, Southwest flies out of secondary airports where it’s the only airline, leaving no other airline to easily put stranded passengers. In situations like that, a passenger would endure the hassle of taking a cab across town like they would have to in Dallas to go from Love Field where Southwest is the only airline to DFW that all the other major carriers serve. 

But if you take a look at the weather forecast, things could get worse. Southwest has already said that its short-term plans are to operate a third of its schedule “for the next several days,” hopefully to get some breathing room. However, without a complete reset of the carrier’s dominoes, it’s tempting fate if the New Year’s surge creates another round of chaos as travelers try to return home Sunday and Monday.

Hogwash, says a consumer watchdog

In response, U.S. PIRG Consumer Watchdog Teresa Murray said: "Unreliable airline travel has been an ongoing nightmare for more than two and a half years and now caused anguish for so many families looking forward to gathering for the first time since 2019 before the pandemic started. The tales of passengers who spent the holiday weekend sleeping on the floor at an airport are heartbreaking.”

“While the awful weather isn’t anyone’s fault, the way travelers were treated and accommodated – or not – sits squarely on the shoulders of most of the airlines,” Murray said in a statement to ConsumerAffairs.

Among the stranded? How to get help.

In a statement, Southwest said it would offer affected passengers either a refund or a voucher with no expiration date. Murray emphasized that passengers should not take their rights lightly nor should they take the first thing an airline offers them.

“If they choose to accept a credit or voucher, it’s important to understand how they work at each of the 10 largest domestic airlines,” she said.

What exactly are your rights if your flight is canceled? The U.S. Department of Transportation spells it out this way:

  • If your flight is canceled, most airlines will rebook you for free on their next flight to your destination as long as the flight has available seats.
  • If your flight is canceled and you choose to cancel your trip as a result, you are entitled to a refund for the unused transportation – even for non-refundable tickets.  You are also entitled to a refund for any bag fee that you paid, and any extras you may have purchased, such as a seat assignment.  
  •  If the airline offers you a voucher for future travel instead of a refund, you should ask the airline about any restrictions that may apply, such as blackout and expiration dates, advanced booking requirements, and limits on number of seats.

The second point is important. You do not have to accept the alternative travel and if you cancel your plans you are due a refund -- not a voucher for future travel, but a refund.

The DOT recently issued a strong rebuke and large fine for Frontier Airlines on that very point.

And if all else fails, filing a complaint with the DOT has been known to get an airline’s attention.

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