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Southwest owes refunds to its passengers. Here's how to get your money back.

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Andrea Minor knows air passenger rights so well that she can recite the federal code. On Monday, when a ticket agent in Austin informed her that her flight home to El Paso had been canceled, she knew what to ask for.

She expected a refund for the rest of her trip to the South West, which she said as politely but firmly as she could. There was no way she and her daughter would stay in Austin, their stopover city, until Saturday, the next date Southwest was available. Her 71-year-old mother in El Paso was sick, so she planned to fly with another airline that would get her there sooner.

Southwest’s agent listened, Minor recalls in a phone interview, and then printed out two vouchers for $200 each that she could use to buy a future ticket on Southwest.

Rectangular sheet of paper in the shape of an airline ticket.  At the top it is written
That’s what Andrea Minor got instead of a refund.
Andrea Minor

Minor explained that she would never fly South West again – so she wanted a real refund. The good ones were the best she could do, the agent told her. The miner also asked for a hotel voucher; staff were exhausted earlier in the day, the officer said.

By refusing to offer Minor a refund, the company was in blatant breach of Department for Transport rules, which additional interviews show it has done time and time again this week.

Between Dec. 23 and Dec. On the 27th, Southwest Airlines canceled nearly 10,000 flights, more than 50% of its schedule, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking company. The southwest has excuse, blaming his “operational challenges” on how severe weather intersected with his planning tool. Social media is full of heartbreaking stories of vacation plans being erased that it would be easy to classify repayment challenges such as minors as another informative detail. But it’s more serious than that.

All airlines are bound by federal law to provide customers with full refunds, not credits, when they cancel flights for any reason. Southwest is also one of many airlines that have publicly committed to cover the cost of a hotel stay when they are responsible for the cancellation.

The refund rule is not some dark point buried in old contracts; it’s a standard that Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, completed Many times Over the past two years, in response to requests from airlines well-documented trends give customers flight credits they will never use. The Department for Transport highlighted the rule in November, when he announced that the agency had just fined six airlines for violating it: “Under US law, airlines and ticket agents have a legal obligation to reimburse consumers if the airline cancels or significantly alters a flight to, from, and within the United States, and the passenger does not.” not wishing to accept the proposed alternative. It is illegal for an airline to withhold refunds and instead provide vouchers to such consumers. Beyond occasional fines, the Department of Transport has taken this position educate customers on their rights should encourage airlines to behave better.

But the experiences of Minor and other travelers in recent days illustrate why the current approach falls short. Minor knew his rights. Management knew the rules. And yet, a customer service agent tried to appease a traveler with a gift card.

“They should be ashamed of themselves,” Minor said of Southwest.

But what about all that snow? Some called him theblizzard of the century,after all. Is it really fair to say that this mess was under Southwest’s control? Or even if it was, isn’t it possible that some Southwest employees don’t know about it? These questions are important because Southwest does not have to provide hotel vouchers if something beyond its control or to cover ground transportation costs, such as weather, caused the mess.

For the Miner, who works in IT, there is little ambiguity. The agent who refused his refund blamed the cancellations on a faulty scheduling system.

In other cases, there may have been more confusion.

Samantha Luna and four members of her family were to spend Christmas in Las Vegas. Instead, they spent $2,500 sleeping in Kansas City, their layover destination, and buying tickets on another airline to New York. When Luna tried to get a hotel voucher for her family, an agent told her, “Southwest can’t control the weather,” she said.

“Weather is preventing airlines from taking responsibility,” observed April Proveaux, whose family spent Christmas eating microwaved meals at a Denver airport hotel.

Paul Hudson, President of Flyersrights.org, a consumer advocacy group, agrees with Proveaux. Airlines often blame the weather when it is actually human error interacting with nature, he said.

Airlines aren’t just about illuminating weather conditions in person; they do it with technology.

On Monday, Southwest COO Andrew Watterson acknowledged the company’s scheduling software as the main culprit, according to CNN. Simultaneously, the app continued to steer some customers away from a refund.

Take the example of Luke Perrin, a student at the Duke Schools of Theology and Public Policy. His flight to Portland was canceled Tuesday morning. For some passengers, the app contained two refund options: “refund to credit card” or “hold for future use”.

A screenshot of Southwest's app.  It shows the route of a flight scheduled for December 28.  There is a button that says
Both of these options have popped up for some people, including the mother of a Slate podcaster.
Screenshot by Slate

But Perrin only had the second option, he told me:

A screenshot of the page in Southwest's app.  The top of the screen says
Luke Perrin was among the travelers who could only select “keep for future use”.
Luc Perrin

Others have shared similar experiences. Deanna Chase, a novelist based in New Orleans, landed on a screen stating that she was only eligible for credit because of her rate type. (Fare type should not affect a refund in this situation.)

Of course, it’s entirely possible that the app’s shortcomings weren’t intentional.

When I asked Southwest if travelers whose flights had been canceled in recent days were eligible for refunds, a spokesperson said yes. Any traveler whose flight has been canceled may request to be reimbursed. It is Our policy every time a flight is cancelled,” he wrote. Requests for hotels and meal reimbursements would be “considered on a case-by-case basis”, he added.

And in defense of Southwest, the airline did E-mail Perrin a link to leaf Where he can request a refund, we found out when I asked him to rummage through his inbox.

A screenshot of an email from Southwest.  It says
Luc Perrin

But spend a few minutes on social media and it’s clear that many people have never seen this link. Even Minor, who was kind enough to share the DOT policy with the other passengers, hadn’t seen it until I sent it to him. Southwest’s failure to direct ticket agents to offer the option of an in-person refund and to make that option always clear in the app is not in keeping with the spirit of the rules.

On Tuesday, Secretary Buttigieg told the CEO of Southwest Airlines that the company should provide “meal vouchers, refunds and hotel accommodations to those who experience significant delays or cancellations as a result of the decisions and actions of Southwest,” a representative from the Department of Transportation said in a statement provided to media. “The department will take action to hold Southwest accountable if it fails to meet its obligations,” the statement said.

But more immediately, thousands of people need their money back. So Here is that very important link, again.

Correction, 12/29: An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that airlines should only refund customers if they were responsible for the cancellation. Airlines are supposed to offer customers the option of a full refund, regardless of the cause of cancellation. The reason for the cancellation impacts other compensation, such as hotel vouchers, that the airline is supposed to offer.

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