2 Arizona snowbirds await refund from Southwest Airlines’ holiday meltdown

The Department of Transportation is calling for several changes, including a rule that would finally define a "significant delay."
Published: Mar. 9, 2023 at 7:00 AM MST|Updated: Mar. 9, 2023 at 1:31 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) — Pat Eisenberg and George Cline got caught in Southwest Airlines’ Christmas travel meltdown. “Horror,” Eisenberg said. “It was an automated call from Southwest saying that your return trip on the 29th - your flight - has been canceled, and that was that.”

The pair scrambled for a solution. They couldn’t extend their VRBO rental, and they needed to get home. “I was on hold [with Southwest] for three hours, and I never got through,” Cline said. Southwest’s first flight available was days later, so the pair booked a return flight on a different airline and gave the bill to Southwest.

Eisenberg’s refund went through. Cline’s didn’t. “The amount is $399.60,” Eisenberg said. “We’re stuck, and it’s a frustration.” Travelers across the country are facing frustration more often. “For the last 18 months, if you go back to the fall of 2021, every major holiday, every major travel period--a lot of those have been a mess,” said Teresa Murray, a consumer watchdog from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “Sometimes it’s just one or two airlines. Sometimes it’s more than just one, but it’s never the same one. They’ve all had their share of problems.” Murray says staffing issues are contributing to the higher-than-usual number of flight cancelations and delays. “Most airlines are only at about 75% of staffing overall,” she said.

If your flight is canceled, the airline owes you a refund. Airlines also owe you a refund for a flight that is “significantly delayed” if you choose not to travel, but the U.S. Department of Transportation doesn’t define what that means. “It’s just stupid,” Murray said. “In the wording from the DOT, they would say, ‘If your flight is significantly delayed, then the airline must do this.’ Well, what’s the definition of significant delay? ‘Uh. We don’t know.’ Well, now they’re going to define it.”

According to a proposed rule that will be the subject of a DOT public hearing next week, the department is considering defining a ‘significant delay’ as three hours for domestic flights. “Historically, the DOT has handled the airline industry with kid gloves and maybe we’re starting to see that tide turn,” Murray said. “Consumers deserve better. The airlines just can’t get away with the same old junk anymore. They have to do better.” The proposed rule would also require airlines to provide non-expiring vouchers or travel credits when passengers are not able to travel because they have COVID-19 or another communicable disease.

Last month, Southwest COO Andrew Watterson told lawmakers the vast majority of refund and reimbursement requests following its holiday travel disruption have been handled, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. “These actions go above and beyond applicable DOT requirements relating to airline refunds and baggage and travel expense reimbursements for flights canceled or significantly delayed by an airline. It has truly been an all-hands-on-deck effort, and our People will not let up until all requests are complete,” Watterson said.

“I know one that hasn’t,” Eisenberg said. “We kept thinking, ‘Ok, they’re going to get to George’s. They’re going to get to George’s,’ and they didn’t.” After On Your Side reached out to Southwest, a spokesperson told us Cline’s refund request had been assigned to a specialist and flagged for priority resolution. Within days, Cline’s refund was deposited, and Southwest gave him an additional $200 voucher. “We are very grateful to you for your intervention on our behalf. We are thoroughly convinced that without that we would still be waiting and are not sure that we would ever have received the compensation. So, thank you, thank you, thank you!” Eisenberg said.