What Can Stranded Travelers Expect from Southwest?

For the many passengers whose holiday travel was disrupted by the meltdown at Southwest Airlines, one question now looms large: How — and how much — will they get reimbursed for their troubles?

In a pointed letter to the airline’s chief executive, Bob Jordan, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg made his opinion clear: “The cancellations and significant delays at least since December 24 are due to circumstances within the airline’s control,” — in other words, not the weather — and that he expected the company to reimburse passengers for things like meals, hotel rooms and alternate forms of transportation that would not normally be covered when delays and cancellations are related to the weather.

“Control” is the key word, experts say. Controllable issues are things like maintenance and crew positioning, “things the carrier is uniquely in control of,” said Bob Mann, an airline industry consultant. Ultimately, the airline’s legal obligations may depend on what happens when something outside of the company’s control, like the snowstorm that wreaked havoc across the country, causes a problem within the airline’s control, like Southwest’s technological and scheduling failures.

Either way, it may end up costing the company many millions of dollars. “I think there are probably two million customers impacted at this point,” said Mr. Mann. “They are looking at five to six hundred million dollars in potential obligations.” Here’s where the money may go.

What is Southwest legally required to provide to passengers?

According to the Department of Transportation dashboard, “If an airline cancels a passenger’s flight or makes a significant change in the flight, regardless of the reason, airlines are required to provide a prompt refund to a ticketed passenger, including those with nonrefundable tickets, should the passenger choose not to accept the alternative offered, such as rebooking on another flight.”

So if your flight was canceled or significantly delayed and you chose not to fly on Southwest, you’re owed a refund of your ticket. Southwest is advising passengers who have not already been refunded to submit a request through the company website.

What about expenses incurred while waiting for a flight to finally take off?

In an email to The Times, Southwest said that passengers who faced a cancellation or significant delay between Dec. 24, 2022, and Jan. 2, 2023, “may submit receipts for consideration” via email or on the company website. “We will honor reasonable requests for reimbursement for meals, hotel, and alternate transportation,” the email said.

No clear definition was given for what a “reasonable” request would be. But Southwest is facing pressure to be generous in its compensation.

In his letter sent on Thursday, Mr. Buttigieg said the Department of Transportation would “take action to hold Southwest accountable” if the airline did not fulfill its commitments to passengers stranded by circumstances under its control. In the past, the airline has promised to provide meals when passengers have to wait for three hours or more for a new flight, and hotel accommodations and ground transportation to and from hotels for any passenger who faces an overnight delay.

Will passengers who booked flights on other airlines be reimbursed for those flights?

They are in a more complicated category.

Though Southwest said in its email that it would honor “reasonable requests” for “alternate transportation,” Southwest typically does not rebook passengers on competitors’ flights, unlike legacy carriers like Delta Air Lines and American Airlines, among others.

But Mr. Buttigieg said in his letter that “Southwest has stated that it will honor reasonable requests for reimbursement for alternate transportation, such as other airline tickets, Amtrak, or rental cars.”

“It will be a case-by-case basis,” Mr. Mann predicted. Booking an expensive flight might indicate to the airline you had a serious obligation you couldn’t miss, he said. “My advice is to hold onto your receipts, use the Southwest tool, and see how it goes,” he said.

“I had to rebook on United,” said Michael Quidort, 32, who was traveling home from Raleigh, N.C., to Chicago when his Southwest flight was canceled. He said he paid United $295, but his original flight was $140, and when he tried to submit a claim, the Southwest system kept crashing. He plans to keep trying, but said he is “not that hopeful” that he’ll get reimbursed. “Everything has just been a mess with them and I don’t have a lot of faith in them turning this around any time soon,” he said.

What about the cost of the vacation I wasn’t able to take?

Reimbursing passengers for meals and alternate transportation is one thing, but there is also a human cost to the airline’s meltdown, said Katy Nastro, a travel expert with Scott’s Cheap Flights, which alerts members to airfare deals. “Some people don’t get the flexibility of being able to take time off whenever they want,” she said. “Your holiday period is one of the only periods you can rely on and plan and save for a trip.”

How people could be compensated for those losses is unclear.

Ms. Nastro also wondered whether passengers who incurred nonrefundable expenses — including for Airbnbs and all-inclusive hotels — would be covered under Southwest’s vague reimbursement policy. “I don’t know,” she said, “but there are a lot of cases like this.”

What about missing bags?

Caroline Neary’s flight from Houston to West Palm Beach, Fla., wasn’t canceled or delayed. But while the Ph.D. student arrived home on time, her baggage still has not arrived; she ended up wearing her mother’s clothes for the holiday. And, she said, she has spent $500 on clothes, toiletries and a suitcase so she could finish her travels. Ms. Neary said she spoke to Southwest on Monday to report the missing baggage, but she didn’t expect to see it again for weeks. “Allegedly it’s in Baltimore,” she said by text message.

Southwest has said that travelers can report missing bags on its website. In his letter, Mr. Buttigieg noted that “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.”

Is it risky to fly Southwest in the near future?

“Business-wise, Southwest got through Covid pretty well,” said Blaise Waguespack, a professor of management, marketing and operations at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “They were one of the first major carriers to get back to profitability.”

Still, he cautions that the next few months could be rough for the company — and in turn for passengers. “Even if they went out and bought the latest and greatest system to replace their poor back-end crew scheduling system, it still would take a few months to transfer over,” he said.

Personally, he’s taking his chances. “I’ve got Southwest tickets next month and I’m not canceling them.”

As for concerns about the possibility that this event could bankrupt the airline, Mr. Waguespack said there’s “no way.” With a profitable third quarter, it “could handle any remuneration it decided to offer,” he said.

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