Southwest’s Technology Troubles Accelerate DOT Action

January 26, 2023

Along with hundreds of thousands of other travelers, my Southwest flight got canceled during the holidays. A winter storm caused trouble for all airlines, but Southwest accounted for more than 80% of them. Even days after the storm passed, Southwest continued to cancel thousands of flights. 

During those tenuous few days, journalists began discussing the open secret behind the meltdown: Southwest’s outdated scheduling systems and software. Caused by a longstanding history of underinvestment in IT, the airline has incurred some pretty major “technical debt.” 

One example of an area where Southwest’s technology is lacking is fundamental communications regarding day-to-day operations. When there are cancellations or delays, pilots and flight attendants have to call the head office to talk to someone about logistics regarding where they should stay or what other flights they should take. 

The meltdown invited scrutiny from many, including U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. On December 27, 2022, he tweeted, “Southwest passengers have experienced unacceptable disruptions and customer service conditions. I have made clear to their executives that our department will hold Southwest accountable for making things right with their customers and employees.” He also “encouraged” other airlines to cap fares on impacted routes. 

How exactly can the U.S. Department of Transportation (“DOT”) make things “right?” Legal rights for airline passengers are not very strong – a plane ticket is a contract, and airlines retain the right to cancel, delay, or reschedule flights. However, federal law requires airlines to reimburse passengers for canceled or, in some situations, “significantly delayed” flights. 

Interestingly, the Southwest fiasco took place after the DOT made some significant updates – for example, they created a new Airline Customer Service Dashboard in September 2022. This new feature includes easy-to-read tables that indicate various commitments that the ten large airlines have made regarding flight delays and cancellations. In November, the DOT also announced that the department had overseen $600 million in refunds to customers and fined airlines $7.25 million for extreme delays in providing refunds. 

Surely, the financial losses and pressures from the public and the DOT following this meltdown will convince Southwest to “get with the times” and not skip out on important (yet costly) software updates.

In early January, the DOT issued a notice to “reaffirm its commitment to vigorously enforce the law to protect aviation consumers.” The statement described the DOT’s commitment to ensuring airline compliance with civil rights and consumer protection regulations by working with the airlines and issuing warning letters before utilizing “enforcement actions.” However, the notice also asserted that the department will “intensify enforcement actions for violations that cause significant harm through negotiated settlement orders assessing civil penalties or the filing of a formal complaint before the Department’s Office of Hearings.” 

It seems that the government’s response to the situation is to continue to communicate to passengers about what to expect and ask from airlines when travel issues arise, and increase compliance with and enforcement of federal laws.

In their response, Southwest has offered affected customers full refunds plus 25,000 rewards points, and they are taking “reasonable requests for reimbursement for meals, hotel accommodations, and alternate transportation.”  Surely, the financial losses and pressures from the public and the DOT following this meltdown will convince Southwest to “get with the times” and not skip out on important (yet costly) software updates. 
If your flights were affected and you still need to get reimbursed, here is where you can get help from Southwest. Here is more general information from the DOT about flight refunds.

Ruth Puryear

Ruth Puryear graduated from Emory University in 2021 with a Theater Studies major and Chinese Studies minor. In law school, Ruth is on the Holderness Moot Court Appellate Advocacy Team in addition to being a staff member North Carolina Journal of Law and Technology.