The Department of Transportation Will Look Into Southwest Airlines

A winter storm disrupted travel for many, but some travelers who planned to fly Southwest remain grounded even as the weather has cleared. As of Wednesday, the carrier had canceled about 13,000 flights since the storm.

On Friday, December 23rd, Southwest canceled around 34 percent of its scheduled flights. About 22.5 percent of all non-Southwest flights were also canceled. However, the situation worsened for Southwest in particular in the days that followed.

Southwest canceled about 39 percent of its flights on Saturday, 46 percent on Sunday, 74 percent on Monday, and 64 percent on Tuesday. Comparatively, only about 13.3 percent of non-Southwest flights were canceled on Saturday, 9.7 percent on Sunday, and 5.7 percent on Monday.

“This has clearly crossed the line from what is an uncontrollable weather situation to something that is the airline’s direct responsibility,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in an interview on NBC Nightly News. In another interview with PBS Newshour, Buttigieg stated, “We’re going to expect them to go beyond the letter of the law in terms of how they treat passengers, making sure they pay for things like hotels, ground travel expenses, meals and of course, refunds.”

Current Department of Transportation rules state that customers whose flights are canceled are entitled to a full refund, including a refund for extra purchases such as bag fees.

Senator Maria Cantwell, chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, announced on Tuesday that the committee would investigate, suggesting that consumers should be better protected from such airline conduct.

Southwest’s delays and cancellations may have resulted from its plane routing model, which sends planes from point to point without returning to a main hub. Most airlines use a “hub and spoke” model, sending planes from one or two main hubs to their corresponding spokes and back again. This type of model makes it easier to halt a specific route and leave other routes unaffected. Southwest’s model seemingly takes much longer to recover from an incident such as bad weather. Other factors may include Southwest’s outdated scheduling system and staffing shortages.

Southwest is allowing customers traveling through January 2 to rebook or travel standby without incurring extra fees. It has also opened a self-service portal where customers can request a refund. Its FAQs state that the company will honor reasonable reimbursement requests for meals, hotels, and alternative transportation for those impacted by cancellations or delays between December 24 and January 2.

Additional Reading

Southwest cancels another 4,800 flights as its reduced schedule continues, NPR (December 28, 2022)

Southwest’s Meltdown Draws Federal Scrutiny as Passengers Remain Stranded, The New York Times (December 28, 2022)

Image Credit: Carlos Yudica /