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- Southwest cancelled thousands of flights in December, leaving passengers stranded over Christmas.
- Transportation Sec. Pete Buttigieg gave the airline a deadline for refunds, but it came and went.
- Southwest has said it is still working daily to process requests for refunds and reimbursements.
Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg gave Southwest Airlines a deadline to issue refunds to those who were impacted by the flight cancellation chaos over Christmas, but a month later some passengers said they were still waiting.
Hoards of travelers experienced flight cancelations over Christmas, but Southwest saw the worst of it. The airline experienced an operational meltdown, cancelling thousands of flights with the disruptions rippling throughout the travel industry.
Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg wrote a letter to Robert Jordan, the CEO of Southwest, on December 28, calling the debacle “unacceptable” and outlining steps the airline needed to take in response. He said the law required Southwest to “provide prompt refunds” for canceled flights that are not rebooked.
“This means Southwest must provide refunds within seven business days if a passenger paid by credit card, and within 20 days if a passenger paid by cash, check, or other means,” the letter said, while also calling on the airline to cover ground transportation, hotels, and meals for stranded passengers.
But as of this week, more than a month has passed and some passengers said they are still waiting.
A high school basketball team from Seattle, Washington, that got stranded in Las Vegas for five days over Christmas after Southwest canceled their flight had only received a partial refund as of Tuesday, the coaches told Insider. One coach and his wife also spent over $10,000 on incidental expenses to take care of the team and were still waiting on those reimbursement requests to be reviewed.
John Erickson, a Southwest passenger who was stuck in Denver for three days after Southwest canceled his flight, told WFLA the airline told him it would take months to receive his refund.
In a statement provided to Insider, Southwest rebuked the possibility it engaged in unrealistic flight schedules.
“Our holiday flight schedule was thoughtfully designed and offered to our Customers with the backing of a solid plan to operate it, and with ample staffing,” the statement said, adding: “Our systems and processes became stressed while working to recover from multiple days of flight cancelations across 50 airports in the wake of an unprecedented storm.”
Southwest previously told Insider last week it was still working daily to process refund and reimbursement requests from passengers.
When contacted by Insider about Southwest not meeting Buttigieg’s timeframe, a Department of Transportation spokesperson said they are still investigating “Southwest Airlines’ holiday debacle that stranded millions.”
The spokesperson said DOT “will hold Southwest accountable if it fails” to issue timely refunds or reimbursements. They added that the agency is also investigating “whether Southwest executives engaged in unrealistic scheduling of flights which under federal law is considered an unfair and deceptive practice.”
Passengers who have not received refunds can also file a complaint with the DOT, and Buttigieg has said the agency will follow up on every one of them to ensure they’re taken care of.
DOT has not been clear about how it plans to hold airlines accountable or enforce its deadlines. John Breyault, the vice president for public policy at the National Consumers League, told The New York Times last month that DOT has been hesitant to hold the airlines accountable, adding: “While Secretary Buttigieg has talked a tough talk, particularly over the past few months, we have yet to see that really translate into action.”
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