I’ve been busy watching the news, reading the stories, and being thankful I didn’t have clients up in the air on Southwest during the busiest travel week of the year. Here’s my take, as I understand it, on an important issue that’s reared its ugly head.
First, know that if you have been affected by a canceled flight, you will likely be offered a travel credit.
But, you are entitled to a refund, no matter what your insurance status is, so ask for one if that is in your best interest.
Let's take a look at what happened
Southwest has a kind of unique & antiquated system of scheduling in which the crew is not always with their equipment (the planes). When the weather started grounding flights, crews for grounded flights in Colorado (for example) got stranded and were not able to make their next flight in New York (again, for example), therefore grounding the flight out of New York. As you can imagine, this caused a cascade effect across the nation with crews and planes scattered all over and no one where they should be, requiring Southwest to shut down all but about a third of their flights (one number I saw was 29,000 flights canceled or delayed for up to 7 days). And, of course since their scheduling issues were triggered by weather, Southwest maintains this was a “weather event” (out of their control) instead of “scheduling” (within their control).
Why is that important?
Because whenever you travel you sign a contract. You may not realize it, but you do. The airlines file their client contracts with the DOT and put its on their website and at the airports. Weather is always mentioned as something beyond the airline’s control, and absolves the airline of any liability during weather events.
This means while millions are stranded without food, shelter, clean clothes, daily medication, or means to get home (through rental car or flight on another airline), Southwest is hanging out waiting on the weather to clear up and at no liability to reimburse them for extra expenses.
I hope every single affected passenger used a travel advisor to book their trip so they don’t have to navigate this alone. I also hope they bought a comprehensive travel insurance plan so they are not out the extra expense of being grounded for up to a week.
So what happens now?
Will Southwest be forced to change their antiquated ways? Only time & resulting lawsuits will tell. Will my business model change? Not likely. While I usually stick with Delta, American Airlines, and United as a general rule, I do occasionally book Southwest. Sometimes the risk of delays is worth the price difference for my clients (and my clients always get to make the final decision). In Southwest's defense, all airlines were canceling flights during a weather event no one could have predicted 6 months ago. So in a sense, their plight is weather related. However, their crew scheduling system and lack of liability included in their airline/passenger agreement made it much worse than it should have been and I personally feel like Southwest should be held accountable for that (but of course, no one has asked me and they likely won't).
Moral of the story
For now, we can't change how an entire company runs their business. But there are ways to ease our pain if we're caught in the middle.
1. always use a travel advisor so that in situations like this, you have a professional in your corner.
2. Make sure you’re traveling with peace of mind. Don’t skip on the travel insurance.
Tales of a travel agent. Reviews, lists, and anything in between. *Opinions are my own and do not reflect the views of any travel companies mentioned. There may be affiliate links in these posts. If you use these links to make a purchase, I will receive a small commission.