Southwest Airlines gets record fine for 2022 holiday meltdown

ConsumerAffairs

'A new precedent and clear message' says DOT’s Buttigieg.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has just slapped Southwest Airlines with a  $140 million civil penalty for last year's holiday season meltdown.

In case you've forgotten, bad weather and a system failure resulted in the cancellation of 16,900 flights that stranded over two million passengers during the 2022 holiday season.

No company wants this kind of attention

A penalty of $140 million would get anyone’s attention, but certainly an airline’s. The penalty is 30 times greater than any previous DOT penalty for consumer protection violations. 

No one’s saying, but the DOT may be trying to send a message to other airlines because it doesn’t trust them to do what they’re required to do. Southwest unfortunately set itself up to become the poster child for that approach 

In September 2022, at DOT's urging, Southwest Airlines made significant changes to its customer service plan – one that entitled passengers to reimbursements for expenses such as meals, hotels, and ground transportation if a flight is significantly delayed or canceled due to an airline issue.

As a result of these actions, Southwest was legally required to adhere to those commitments during the 2022 holiday travel meltdown.

Busy signals and long wait times

“But when Southwest customers contacted the company’s customer service, they were often met with busy signals, hours-long queues to connect with agents, or dropped calls,” the agency said in its announcement. 

“Today’s action sets a new precedent and sends a clear message: if airlines fail their passengers, we will use the full extent of our authority to hold them accountable,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

“Taking care of passengers is not just the right thing to do — it's required, and this penalty should put all airlines on notice to take every step possible to ensure that a meltdown like this never happens again.”

Do you fly Southwest?

If you flew Southwest and were impacted by the holiday 2022 meltdown, you’ve probably already received your cut of the more than $600 million in refunds and reimbursements that DOT already ensured. Ninety million dollars from this penalty will be used to compensate Southwest passengers affected by cancellations or significant delays in the future. 

“Specifically, in the event Southwest causes a passenger to arrive at their destination three hours or more after their original scheduled arrival time due to an issue within Southwest’s control, Southwest is required to provide the passenger with a transferable $75 voucher [or more] for future use on the airline,” DOT explained.

“This industry-leading benefit will ensure that Southwest passengers impacted by any future significant disruptions will receive not only flight rebooking, hotels, and food during the delay but also timely compensation from Southwest due to the inconvenience.”

The agency said that some vouchers could be higher than $75 and that those vouchers have to be “transferable and usable for future domestic or international travel on Southwest.”

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