Why Isn’t Southwest Airlines Refunding Passengers for Canceled Flights?

The law is pretty clear about this

Southwest Airlines
Travelers walk past the Southwest Airlines check-in counter at Denver International Airport on December 28, 2022.
Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

To understate matters substantially, Southwest Airlines has not been having a good week. Each of the last few days has brought with it news of canceled flights and stranded travelers, creating an escalating situation that’s likely to take days, if not longer, to fully resolve. Besides the myriad logistical issues here, there’s also another problem that’s also steadily escalating: under U.S. law, many of these travelers may be owed refunds, and not all of them seem to be getting them.

That’s among the biggest takeaways from a new article in Slate by Heather Tal Murphy. As Murphy points out, the Department of Transportation has clearly and repeatedly stated the policies it requires for airlines in the event of a canceled flight.

An announcement from the D.O.T. from November 2022 noted that “airlines and ticket agents have a legal obligation to refund consumers if the airline cancels or significantly changes a flight to, from and within the United States, and the passenger does not wish to accept the alternative offered.”

Seems pretty straightforward, right? As Murphy writes, however, numerous Southwest passengers dealing with canceled flights have described having a very different experience. The article opens with one traveler dealing with a canceled flight and asking for a refund, as they’d vowed to never fly Southwest again; instead, they were given a voucher for future travel.

Some of this may be due to technical issues; Slate heard from some travelers with canceled flights who were given the option of a refund, while others in comparable positions were only offered credits for future travel. To state the obvious, though, if an airline’s ticketing system isn’t following federal regulations, that’s a big problem. And given that the D.O.T. hasn’t been shy about fining airlines for violating its policies, there could be more difficulties for Southwest on the horizon.


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