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Cantwell demands full accounting of Southwest Airlines’ refunds after holiday travel disruptions

WASHINGTON, D.C., February 19, 2023—U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, sent a letter to Southwest Airlines COO Andrew Watterson last Wednesday demanding additional information about refunds being provided to customers impacted by the airline’s December 2022 holiday travel disruptions.

The letter follows an assertion from Watterson during a February 9 Commerce Committee hearing that the airline had processed 99.5% of refund requests, yet the COO could not provide Sen. Cantwell with the data behind it. In today’s letter to Watterson, she writes:

“At the hearing, I asked how many tickets Southwest actually cancelled and you did not provide a clear answer. I also asked how many people actually received refunds and also did not get a clear answer. The Committee deserves clarity on these questions, in light of the fact that on February 3, 2023, Southwest told Committee staff that the airline had ‘processed’ 99.5% of refund requests.”

The letter goes on to request a detailed accounting of Southwest’s refunds issued to customers, as well as clarity about the airline’s refund policy. The full text of the letter is HERE and below.

Sen. Cantwell’s action was inspired by hearing the story of Veronica Gutierrez at a February 7 roundtable with Washingtonians affected by Southwest’s operational failures during the holidays.

Gutierrez purchased a ticket to fly her active-duty military son home to Bellevue from Fort Stewart, GA, through California. Her son reached California but Southwest cancelled his flights to Sea-Tac. He never made it home for the holidays. Gutierrez stated during the roundtable that she had yet to receive a monetary refund.

“Southwest … sent me an email, [crediting] me 50,000 points,” Gutierrez said during the roundtable. “I did respond to the email and told them that I would take the 50,000 points, but I also would like my money refunded to me. I have not heard anything back from them in regards to my financial refund.”

During the oversight hearing, Sen. Cantwell had pressed Watterson for more detailed information on the number of would-be fliers who had actually received refunds for their cancelled tickets – whether or not they had filed a formal request with Southwest.

“Do you know the number of how many actual tickets were cancelled?” Sen. Cantwell asked.

“I have the refunds, would that be sufficient?” Watterson responded.

Sen. Cantwell continued: “No. No. … What we’re really trying to understand here… [is] how many people really had their tickets cancelled. And then, you want to know how many people you really did refund. So until you know that, you don’t really know the answer. You know how many people submitted something, but what we really want to know is how many tickets actually were cancelled that didn’t fly. So if we could get that information from you that would be helpful.”

“Certainly,” Watterson said.

In her letter Sen. Cantwell asked Southwest to “provide…precise answers and actual numbers” to a series of questions regarding the company’s true efforts to reimburse and refund customers including the total number of passengers whose tickets were cancelled, the number who requested a refund, and the number of passengers the airline had refunded.

The Department of Transportation requires airlines to issue refunds to customers within seven business days of a refund request when: (1) an airline cancels a flight and the customer chooses not to re-book; or (2) an airline causes a significant schedule change or delay, and the customer chooses not to travel.

The information requested from Southwest would reveal how many customers, like Gutierrez, fall into this category but didn’t receive timely refunds, or any refunds at all.

Dear Mr. Watterson:

Thank you for testifying on February 9, 2023, before the U.S. Senate Committee on Science, Commerce, and Transportation about the root cause of Southwest Airlines’ travel debacle in December 2022 and the actions the airline has taken to remedy the problem and consequences.

At the hearing, I asked how many tickets Southwest actually cancelled and you did not provide a clear answer. I also asked how many people actually received refunds and also did not get a clear answer. The Committee deserves clarity on these questions, in light of the fact that on February 3, 2023, Southwest told Committee staff that the airline had “processed” 99.5% of refund requests.

We also learned at the oversight hearing that passengers are facing too many hurdles in obtaining refunds and accessing information from airlines when airlines cancel their flights. Clarifying the rules for refunds and simplifying the process for receiving a refund are among the common-sense reforms we are considering for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization.

To further educate the Committee in furtherance of these goals, please provide answers to the following questions with precise answers and actual numbers, as applicable. You may also provide percentages, where appropriate, for additional context.

  1. Due to Winter Storm Elliott, Southwest’s loss of operational control, and subsequent decision to reboot its network, how many Southwest passengers were subjected to a cancelled or significantly delayed flight—the threshold for refund entitlement during DOT policy—or were otherwise eligible for a refund under either DOT policy or Southwest’s own standards? Please provide data for, at a minimum, December 21 through December 30.
  2. Of that amount:
  1. How many passengers actually requested a refund?
  2. How many passengers did you refund, and what is the total value of those refunds?
  3. Instead of a refund, how many passengers proactively accepted a voucher or credit?
  4. Instead of a refund, how many passengers re-booked on Southwest?
  1. Of the refund requests that Southwest has completed, how many were completed after DOT’s seven business day deadline?
  2. For any passengers who were subjected to a canceled or significantly delayed flight due to Winter Storm Elliott and/or Southwest’s subsequent decision to reboot its network, but who did not pursue a refund, voucher, credit, or re-booking, what steps is Southwest taking to ensure that they are made whole?
  3. Regarding reimbursements for out-of-pocket expenses, last week you told the Committee that 284,188 “eligible cases” had been submitted to Southwest, and that Southwest has sent reimbursements for all but the 10,782 most recently-made requests. How many claims did Southwest deem to be ineligible for reimbursement?
  4. Please provide a detailed explanation of Southwest’s criteria for determining the eligibility of a reimbursement request.
  5. You testified that the “fix” to the crew scheduling system would be done the day following the hearing. Please confirm whether this fix is complete. If not, please provide the date when the crew scheduling system will be fixed.

Thank you for your timely response to these questions. Please provide a response in writing to my staff by February 23, 2023.


SOURCE: Office of Maria Cantwell

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