Over the past several days, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has been talking about how Southwest Airlines will be held accountable for its operational meltdown. Even as the airline resets its operation as of today, there are still endless stranded travelers and lost bags. Buttigieg has now written a letter to Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan, highlighting exactly what that accountability will look like.
What Buttigieg requests from Southwest Airlines
On Thursday, December 29, 2022, the Department of Transportation (DOT) published the letter that was sent to Southwest Airlines’ CEO, highlighting what’s expected of the airline in the coming days and weeks. This is useful, as it gives consumers some reassurance as to what they’re entitled to.
The letter starts by correctly blaming Southwest for its operational issues since December 24. While weather was the initial problem, the mess since then has been within Southwest’s control. Buttigieg shares his four priorities for Southwest Airlines:
- Getting stranded passengers to their destinations safely and quickly
- Providing or reimbursing passengers for meals, hotels, and ground transportation to or from hotels
- Promptly refunding affected passengers for their cancelled tickets should the passenger not accept alternative offered such as rebooking
- Ensuring that passengers are quickly reunited with their baggage
The letter goes on to highlight expectations for each of these points, so let’s go over that.
Getting passengers to their destination
Here’s what the DOT expects from Southwest when it comes to getting passengers to their destination:
Southwest should ensure that every available resource is being used to assist stranded passengers in finding a way to reach their destination as quickly as possible. Southwest has stated that it will honor reasonable requests for reimbursement for alternate transportation, such as other airline tickets, Amtrak, or rental cars, for those impacted by a flight cancellation or significant flight delay between December 24, 2022, and January 2, 2023. It would be an unfair and deceptive practice not to fulfill this commitment to passengers. The Department will use the fullest extent of its investigative and enforcement powers to hold Southwest accountable if it fails to adhere to the promises made to reimburse passengers for costs incurred for alternate transportation.
Reimbursing for meals, hotels, and ground transportation
Here’s what the DOT expects from Southwest when it comes to providing meals, hotels, and ground transportation to and from hotels:
Southwest has committed to providing meals when a controllable cancellation or delay results in passengers waiting for 3 hours or more for a new flight. This includes all passengers traveling between December 24th and January 2nd who experienced a cancellation or significant delay. In addition, Southwest has promised to provide hotel accommodations and ground transportation to and from hotels for any passenger affected by a controllable overnight delay or cancellation. The Department will take action to hold Southwest accountable if it fails to fulfill commitments that the airline has made in its customer service plans for controllable delays and cancellations.
Here’s what the DOT expects from Southwest when it comes to refunding passengers:
Under the law, Southwest must provide prompt refunds when a carrier cancels a passenger’s flight or makes a significant change in the flight, regardless of the reason, unless the passenger accepts rebooking. This means Southwest must provide refunds within seven business days if a passenger paid by credit card, and within 20 days if a passenger paid by cash, check, or other means. The Department will use the full extent of its investigation and enforcement authority to ensure Southwest complies with its refund obligations.
Reuniting with baggage
Here’s what the DOT expects from Southwest when it comes to reuniting passengers with their baggage:
Southwest communicated to the Department that all baggage has been scanned and that there will be greater transparency for customers about where their bags are currently located, where they want them sent, and when they’ll receive them. We expect you to make every effort, including alternate shipping methods, to get baggage back to customers as quickly as possible. Also, under DOT’s regulation, Southwest is required to reimburse passengers up to $3,800 for provable direct or consequential damages resulting from the disappearance of, damage to, or delay in the delivery of a passenger’s baggage.
My take on the DOT’s letter to Southwest Airlines
While there’s nothing earth shattering in the DOT’s letter to Southwest Airlines, I think this is pretty valuable, and should put many travelers at ease. It creates very clear expectations of what Southwest Airlines needs to do, and also makes it clear that the DOT will hold the airline accountable (likely in the form of fines) if it doesn’t follow through on its customer service plans.
Southwest has offered to reimburse travelers for expenses incurred as a result of issues within the carrier’s control, but has been quite vague about that. With this letter from the DOT, the pressure is on for Southwest to deliver. Specifically, for flights between December 24, 2022, and January 2, 2023:
- Southwest will have to reimburse travelers who pay for alternative transportation; if your Southwest flight is canceled and you end up having to book on another airline, expect to be reimbursed, even if the ticket is really expensive (after all, fares are really high with how little inventory there is)
- Southwest will have to reimburse travelers for hotels, meals, and transportation to and from hotels
- Southwest needs to refund travelers within seven days for canceled flights
- Southwest not only needs to get bags back to people as quickly as possible, but also needs to reimburse them for any necessary expenses they’ve incurred as a result of delayed or lost bags
Southwest Airlines has a monumental task ahead of it here, so a couple of thoughts…
First of all, I can’t even imagine how much this whole situation will cost Southwest. The airline will have to refund passengers on canceled flights, and that could easily be a ten figure amount. Then the airline will also have to reimburse passengers for some (likely) very costly expenses. That doesn’t even begin to address the long term damage to Southwest’s reputation (though consumers do tend to forget).
Next, the airline has some serious time pressure here, and I feel bad for Southwest’s frontline employees working in customer service. I can’t imagine Southwest’s customer service department is equipped to handle hundreds of thousands of urgent customer requests in a very short time period.
So how exactly will the airline handle that? Will Southwest greatly increase its staffing in that department, or how will the airline ensure it can get to passenger requests in a timely manner, while the DOT watches? It’s really important that Southwest does this promptly, because many are paying out of pocket for travel expenses that they probably can’t afford.
I would expect that Southwest will be very generous when it comes to reimbursements, since dissatisfied customers can file complaints with the DOT, and that could lead to costly fines for Southwest.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has written a letter to Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan, clearly outlining what he expects of the airline when it comes to customer service recovery efforts. This creates a pretty good framework for what customers should expect, including reimbursements for passengers impacted by operational issues.
What do you make of this letter to Southwest’s CEO?