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Southwest Flight Cancellations: What Should I Do If My Flight Was Cancelled?

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What was already a peak week for travel was made considerably more complicated by a series of events. Winter storms across the country grounded thousands of flights; Southwest alone canceled more than 70% of its flights on Monday and more than 60% on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to flight tracker FlightAware. lines in Baggage crowd baggage claim areas at airports in the US and Canada. lines for catch up airline customer service desks snaked through the terminals. Stranded passengers are faced with limited flight options, and available alternatives often have price tags over $1,000 for a single one way ticket.

“Usually on vacation there is no excess of places, there is no slack in the system when something goes wrong to recover quickly. This is the case with airlines,” says travel expert Gary Leff of travel blog View From The Wing. “So that means there’s even less than usual in terms of additional seats that a Southwest passenger might find elsewhere.”

If you have an upcoming flight or are stuck at the airport wondering if you’ll make it to your destination, you have a few options: reschedule, refund, request, or wait. Here are some answers to help you make a plan for one of the busiest holiday seasons in recent memory.

What’s happening to air travel right now?

About 60 percent of the US population was under some type of winter weather alert over the holiday weekend, according to the National Weather Service. Snow, freezing rain, ice and high winds affected the East and Midwest, the Lowlands and the Pacific Northwest. As a result, thousands of flights were cancelled, with airports in Denver, Dallas/Fort Worth and Phoenix suffering the most disruptions.

Of all the canceled flights, most are from Southwest Airlines, which expects to operate only about a third of its flights through the end of the year. The extreme weather was the tipping point for a series of cascading problems, says Leff. Between understaffing, antiquated scheduling systems, and out-of-position planes and crews, the airline is unable to get off the ground. “There was a plane from Tampa to Denver that flew most of the way there and capsized because there was no one on the ground to receive it,” says Leff. US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the department would hold the airline responsible for the outage.

I have a next flight. What can I do to prepare?

Before leaving for the airport, make sure you’ve signed up for text alerts and downloaded the airline’s app (turn on notifications) or the FlightAware app for real-time flight information. If your flight is delayed or canceled well in advance, you can make adjusted plans in the comfort of a hotel or a loved one’s home, rather than the chaos of the airport.

Take some pictures of your luggage so that if it gets lost on the way, you can provide an accurate description of what it looks like. Leff also recommends putting an Apple AirTag in your luggage so you can track your bag’s exact location, whether it’s in the middle of the country or in a pile at baggage claim.

Familiarize yourself with the services your airline offers in the event of a delay or cancellation so you know how to defend yourself and other passengers. The US Department of Transportation’s Airline Customer Service Dashboard details a number of amenities that airlines have committed to providing in the event a flight is canceled for reasons the airline can control, such as maintenance or crew issues, but not the climate. These services include free rebooking of your ticket on the same airline (or a partner airline) or a meal voucher for delays of more than three hours.

Your credit card may also offer travel delay coverage or baggage delay coverage, where the cost of your hotel, meals and expenses are reimbursed. The Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Platinum Card by American Express, and the Capital One Venture X Rewards credit card are among the credit cards that offer these protections, but check your credit card agreement for exact details.

Some airlines like United, American, JetBlue and Alaska Airlines are waiving change fees if your flight this week is affected by weather. So if you have some flexibility, try changing your flight if you’re traveling to, say, Buffalo, whose airport has recently reopened.

My flight is perpetually delayed. I need to get out of this airport.

Southwest Airlines is offering refunds to passengers flying between December 24, 2022 and January 2, 2023 who incur “reasonable” additional expenses for hotels, car rentals, food and tickets on other airlines while experiencing significant delays or fly canceled. “What people don’t know is what will be considered reasonable,” says Leff. “So there’s a risk that if you buy that last-minute flight on another airline, it’s the only seat available and it costs $2,000. What will Southwest say? Are they going to pay for five nights in a hotel until they can get you where you were trying to get to, or are they going to pay for three meals a day during that time? You will need to cover expenses upfront and email receipts. According to a statement from Southwest, refund requests will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. The airline does not have a target date for issuing refunds, but said it “will take a little longer than usual due to volume.”

For delays that extend overnight due to manageable issues, many other airlines — including American, Delta, Spirit, Southwest and United — offer free hotel accommodations, according to the airline’s DOT Customer Service Panel. Many of these airlines also offer free transfers to the hotel. Again, extreme weather doesn’t fall under the “manageable” reasons an airline would offer these services, but it’s still worth asking.

Passengers with “significant” delays are entitled to a full refund if they choose not to travel. DOT has not defined what constitutes a “significant” delay, but decides on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the duration of the delay and the duration of the flight. Under normal circumstances, refunds would be issued quickly; given the scale of the current disruptions, Leff says it’s difficult to predict when passengers can expect refunds.

For airlines that don’t cover hotel stays and meals, head to the baggage service office at baggage claim and ask about the distressed traveler’s rate, says Leff. “When the airline isn’t paying for the hotel, they can discount hotels through negotiated rates, and hotels offer that discount because they want the airline’s business,” he explains. “So you might get a better rate than if you were booking direct. It is not a publicly available rate.”

My flight was cancelled. And now?

Regardless of the reason for cancellation, every guest is entitled to a full refund if they choose not to rebook.

For delays and cancellations, Leff says the best course of action is to avoid long lines at the airline counter at the airport. “Standing in queues that go on for hours and hours probably isn’t going to bring you information that’s useful,” he says. But exhaust all your options: try calling, reaching out via social media, chatting via the mobile app or with club staff, looking at other flight options on other airlines, or plotting a route by train or bus. “You’re better off looking at flight options yourself as if you were buying a new one, knowing that with a canceled flight you’ll get your money back and then at least have the option of sending Southwest receipts for some level of reimbursement, Leff says of passengers dealing with this particular situation.

Just remember that airline staff, on the phone and at the airport, are not responsible for the breakdown and are not the people on whom to vent your frustrations. Be nice.

I finally landed. Where is my luggage?

Along with the flight interruptions are the mysterious routes of passengers’ luggage. When your bags don’t arrive at your destination, speak to a member of the airport staff right away. They may have paperwork for you to fill out describing the physical attributes of your bag and its contents. Hopefully the airport can locate and deliver your bag to you in a timely manner. (Before you leave, make sure you don’t have any irreplaceables, like keys, or things you’ll need right away, like medicine, in your checked bag.)

The most an airline can pay a passenger for permanently lost luggage is $3,800 for domestic flights. Again, airlines may reimburse you for items you had to buy while your bag was lost, so keep your receipts.

Air travel is exponentially more stressful right now. Have a plan (and a backup plan), know what expenses the airlines will cover, and try to anticipate potential headaches.

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