Southwest Airlines
Photograph ©2022 by Brian Cohen.

Southwest Airlines to Pay $140 Million For 2022 Meltdown

Is this penalty sizable enough to be a deterrent for future operational meltdowns?

Southwest Airlines agreed to pay $140 million for its 2022 meltdown, which started around Christmas of 2022 and lasted well into January of 2023 — and caused chaos for millions of passengers.

Southwest Airlines to Pay $140 Million For 2022 Meltdown

The Department of Transportation of the United States is penalizing Southwest Airlines for numerous violations of consumer protection laws which occurred during and after the operational failures that cancelled 16,900 flights and stranded greater than two million passengers. The penalty of $140 million is 30 times larger than any previous penalty for violations of consumer protection laws. $90 million of that penalty will be allocated towards the compensation of future passengers of Southwest Airlines who are affected by cancellations or significant delays that are caused by the airline.

Southwest Airlines
Photograph ©2022 by Brian Cohen.

During its investigation — according to this official press release from the Department of Transportation of the United States — Southwest Airlines has been found to have violated consumer protection laws by failing to provide:

  • Adequate customer service assistance: Hundreds of thousands of customers of Southwest Airlines had their flights cancelled and were stranded at the airport, in hotels, and in other locations away from home. The scale of the cancellations left travelers scrambling for alternate flight reservations and other accommodations, but when customers of Southwest Airlines contacted customer service, they were often met with busy signals, hours-long queues to connect with agents, or dropped calls. The investigation by the Department of Transportation found that the call center of Southwest Airlines was overwhelmed, which at times led to a full call center queue and meant customers got a busy signal upon calling the customer service telephone number.
  • Prompt flight status notifications: The policy of Southwest Airlines states that it will update consumers about flight status changes via text message or e-mail messages, but during the holiday disruptions, many customers of Southwest Airlines did not receive a flight status notification in any form, while others received inaccurate ones. Many passengers did not learn their flight had been cancelled until after arriving at the airport. The investigation by the Department of Transportation found that the process for notifying passengers by Southwest Airlines broke down; and as a result, the airline failed to provide prompt notification of flight cancellations and delays.
  • Refunds in a prompt and proper manner: The investigation by the Department of Transportation included an audit of the refunds and reimbursements system of Southwest Airlines to ensure that harmed passengers received what they were owed. The Department of Transportation found that thousands of customers were not promptly refunded. For example, Southwest Airlines failed to notify customers that their submissions to the airline’s refund request microsite contained errors that prevented them from receiving their refunds. After the audit by the Department of Transportation identified the issue, the airline subsequently refunded these consumers. Additionally, thousands of passengers were not provided prompt refunds for optional service fees, like pet fees or upgraded boarding, that they purchased but were never able to use due to significant delays or flight cancellations.

The Department of Transportation officially pledged on Tuesday, December 27, 2022 to examine Southwest Airlines, which suffered a meltdown of its operations throughout its system as a result of both the lingering effects of the winter storms and problems with connecting members of flight crews to their schedules, as that issue resulted in difficulty for employees of the airline to access crew scheduling services and get reassignments.

Pete Buttigieg — who is the current secretary of transportation of the United States — released multiple comments pertaining to the operational meltdown of Southwest Airlines on Wednesday, December 28, 2022.

On Thursday, December 29, 2022, the chief commercial officer of Southwest Airlines official apologized for the operational meltdown — and the airline began offering to customers free changes of flights and reimbursement for reasonable expenses.

The operations of Southwest Airlines — which is the fourth largest airline in the United States; but the airline actually is the largest carrier in the United States in terms of domestic flights — started to slowly stabilize and improve on Friday, December 30, 2022.

At least one passenger initiated a lawsuit against Southwest Airlines with breach of contract on the grounds that the company failed to provide refunds for passengers who were stranded during its meltdown in late December of 2022, which began with with its operations being substantially impacted by a historic winter storm event.

Things became so chaotic during the meltdown of operations which Southwest Airlines was experiencing in late December of 2022 that a law enforcement officer at Nashville International Airport was reportedly called by an employee of Southwest Airlines and threatened to arrest stranded passengers who did not vacate the secure area of the airport.

The penalty of $140 million is in addition to the greater than $600 million in refunds and reimbursements that the Department of Transportation already ensured that Southwest Airlines provided to its passengers who faced disruptions in their travels during the operational meltdown.

Final Boarding Call

Southwest Airlines
Photograph ©2018 by Brian Cohen.

Whether this penalty will prevent Southwest Airlines and other airlines from violating consumer protection laws in the future remains to be seen.

When companies are permitted to operate as an oligopoly, they have little incentive to provide the best service possible for their customers. This is one reason why alternatives in high-speed transportation need to be considered in order to promote competition, which is arguably the best incentive for companies to perform optimally with their businesses.

Thankfully, the holiday season of 2023 has not resulted in any major operational disruptions — yet, anyway — but hopefully, airlines will have learned a lesson of sorts that customers need to be treated better during times of irregular operations…

…especially if those airlines could have strived in preventing those irregular operations from occurring in the first place.

All photographs ©2018 and ©2022 by Brian Cohen.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.

You have Successfully Subscribed!