Southwest Air Will Think Twice About Ruining the Holidays Again

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The federal government has hit Southwest Airlines with a historic fine, one year after an operational failure disrupted tens of thousands of flights and stranded millions of customers during the 2022 holiday-travel season.

The Department of Transportation announced Monday that it is issuing a $140 million civil penalty against the airline, a sanction the agency says is 30 times larger than any past DOT penalty for “consumer-protection violations.” The amount is on top of an additional $600 million worth of reimbursements, in the form of food, lodging, and refunds, that Southwest has made to customers at the department’s urging.

As part of the penalty, Southwest will be required to set aside $90 million in vouchers for future customers affected by extensive delays and cancellations. Southwest will now have to give passengers a $75 voucher if the airline causes them to arrive at their destination more than three hours later than scheduled. This policy will officially go into effect by April 30, 2024, per Southwest.

“This is a message to the entire airline industry: They must take care of passengers, or we’ll use the full extent of our authority to hold them accountable,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement. “Taking care of passengers is not just the right thing to do — it’s required, and this penalty should put all airlines on notice to take every step possible to ensure that a meltdown like this never happens again.”

At the height of the holiday-travel season in late December last year, Southwest Airlines experienced a seismic service meltdown, canceling 16,900 flights en masse and stranding more than 2 million passengers at airports across the country. During its investigation into the incident, DOT determined that Southwest had failed to issue timely alerts to changes in flight status, dispense prompt refunds, or provide sufficient customer assistance.

In a statement, Southwest Airlines president and CEO Bob Jordan asserted, “We have spent the past year acutely focused on efforts to enhance the Customer Experience with significant investments and initiatives that accelerate operational resiliency, enhance cross-team collaboration, and bolster overall preparedness for winter operations.”

Southwest Air Will Think Twice About Ruining Holidays Again