Southwest Airlines cancellations: What are airline passengers entitled to?


(CNN) — Your flight is canceled. You have to stay over in a hotel and pay for dinner or scramble to find a rental car. What are you entitled to?

It’s a question many frustrated Southwest Airlines customers are asking in the face of thousands of canceled flights over the weekend and into Monday.

Beyond rebooking a passenger or issuing a refund for a flight that’s canceled, US airlines aren’t obligated to do much for passengers, even if the next available flight is more than a day away.

“There are no real rules that will allow passengers to get any kind of compensation or even overnight accommodations if they’re really late,” says Charlie Leocha, president and co-founder of Travelers United, a nonprofit organization that advocates for consumers.

Travelers United has been trying to get the US Department of Transportation and Congress to adopt air traveler protections similar to those in Europe, which include hotel accommodations and other compensation for significant delays and disruptions.
Department of Transportation rules are clear: “Airlines are not required to provide passengers with money or other compensation for costs that fall outside of the cancelled airline ticket and fees tied directly to the airline ticket,” the DOT website says.

But airlines have their own policies, the DOT notes. It advises passengers to ask airline staff whether they will pay for a hotel room or meals.

Southwest Airlines did not immediately respond to CNN Travel’s questions about hotel or meal compensation, but the airline has said it is trying to get passengers rebooked.

“We’re working diligently to accommodate our Customers as quickly as possible, and we are grateful for their patience,” the airline said in a statement. “We’re offering Customers added flexibility to explore self-service rebooking options on, where they can get updates on the status of their travel.”

Leocha says customers should ask about “distressed passenger” hotel rates. He says airlines have deals with nearby hotels that may yield a 30% to 50% discount for stranded guests. They’re typically offered to elite passengers, he said, but can be extended to other travelers.

Cash refunds

Airlines are not required to rebook passengers on another airline’s flight with available seats, according to the DOT, although they sometimes will and it’s definitely worth asking.

Southwest Airlines has no change fees, although fare differences typically apply. The airline has not yet responded to a query about whether fare differences apply to this weekend’s disruptions.

When an airline cancels the flight, passengers are entitled to get their money back for the ticket if they decide not to travel. And they should insist on cash over vouchers.

“If you elect not to be accommodated on a later flight, you are entitled to a cash refund, though that may not help you get to where you need to go,” said Robert Feinberg, a marketing specialist with airfare website Scott’s Cheap Flights.

But that’s the extent of it. Headed to board a cruise or to a concert that you’ll now miss? The airline is not responsible for those costs.

“Airlines are not required to reimburse you for any trip costs affected by the cancelled flight, such as a prepaid hotel room, a cruise, a vacation, concert or other tickets, or lost wages,” according to the DOT.

You might have some recourse via travel insurance.

“If you booked with a credit card, be sure to check if you are covered by a travel insurance policy that might reimburse you for extra expenses incurred like hotels or the cost of a new flight home,” Feinberg advises.

He also suggests writing to customer support after the fact to express your disappointment. Sometimes that may result in a voucher for future travel.

Each airline has a contract of carriage that passengers enter into when they purchase tickets. They have “force majeure” clauses that limit their liability in cases where service is not completed or disrupted.

The “force majeure” in Southwest Airlines’ contract of carriage can be any of a long list of events including acts of God, weather, riots, wars, labor disputes, strikes, work stoppages, air traffic control and “the inability to obtain fuel, airport gates, labor, or landing facilities for the flight in question.”
The airline blamed this weekend’s cancellations on limited staffing in Florida, bad weather and air traffic control problems, although the exact causes for the disruptions are a topic of debate.

Whatever the cause, the broad contract of carriage seems to cover it.

Top image: A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-700 jet taxis to the gate after landing at Midway International Airport in Chicago on April 6. Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP/Getty Images

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