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Southwest quietly launches customer compensation program for flight delays

Travelers whose flights arrive three or more hours later than scheduled will now be paid a travel voucher upon request.
A Southwest Airlines employee assists a passenger at the ticket counter.
Posted at 5:50 PM, Apr 30, 2024

Southwest Airlines isn't done paying for its 2022 holiday meltdown.

As part of its $140 million settlement with the Department of Transportation, the airline company must start giving travel vouchers worth at least $75 to passengers who reach their destination three or more hours late due to an airline-controllable issue or if a flight was canceled or delayed within seven days of the scheduled departure date.

USDOT reminded Southwest customers of the required order on April 30, which was the deadline for the airline to start the program. But Southwest says it launched the benefits on April 16, with a few thousand customers already seeking vouchers, according to Reuters.

The vouchers will add up to a $90 million system Southwest agreed to establish in December, a year after a mix of bad winter weather, outdated software systems and employee scheduling chaos led to 16,900 canceled flights and 2 million stranded passengers.

USDOT penalized Southwest more than $750 million in total for the disaster, which includes upwards of $600 million in refunds and reimbursements that the airline already paid last year. And as part of the $140 million civil penalty, which is 30 times larger than any penalty in the agency's history, Southwest had to pay $35 million to the U.S. Treasury.

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At the time of the settlement, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the DOT's actions in the aftermath of the meltdown should put "all airlines on notice" to ensure a similar situation never happens again.

"Today's action sets a new precedent and sends a clear message: If airlines fail their passengers, we will use the full extent of our authority to hold them accountable," he said.

Buttigieg also touted the rollout of the compensation program as further proof the Biden-Harris administration "has [the flying public's] back."

The administration has been cracking down on airlines recently, from the two rules finalized last week regarding customer refunds and junk fees to the jump in consumer protection penalties the DOT has issued against airlines. Between 1996 to 2020, penalties totaled less than $71 million — nearly half of the penalty it issued in one go at Southwest Airlines last year.

To take part in its new compensation program, Southwest has passengers fill out an online form southwest.com/delayform. The requests must be submitted within a year from the delayed or canceled flight, and weather — despite being a large part of the December 2022 delays — doesn't count as an airline-controllable reason for compensation. Southwest says it will email customers within 30 days to share if they will receive a voucher. Then, the voucher will be valid for at least one year.