Southwest reaches settlement with DOT over Storm Elliot disruption

A Southwest Airlines aircraft is marshalled during snowstorm.
Photo Credit: Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines (NYSE: LUV) has reached a global settlement with the Department of Transportation (DOT) relating to the DOT’s investigation into the December 2022 Winter Storm Elliot disruption.

Between December 21, 2022, and January 2, 2023, Southwest cancelled or significantly delayed over 16,900 flights impacting over two million passengers.

With Southwest’s cooperation throughout, the Department’s OACP conducted a rigorous and comprehensive investigation into how Southwest cared for its passengers during and after Southwest’s widespread flight disruptions.

Customer Calls


When Southwest experienced its operational disruption in December 2022, numerous Southwest customers had their flights cancelled and were stuck in airports, at hotels, and in locations away from home.

The surge in inbound calls during Winter Storm Elliot presented unprecedented challenges for Southwest.

When many of these passengers attempted to call Southwest for assistance, Southwest’s customer care telephone system was not able to handle the volume of consumer calls.

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Subsequently, the airline increased call center capacity and provided regular updates to customers about extended wait times, guiding them towards alternative channels for assistance.

A line of Southwest Airlines aircraft parked at the terminal.
Photo Credit: Southwest Airlines

Ticket Refunds and Expense Reimbursements


Southwest provided more than $600 million in ticket refunds, expense reimbursements and goodwill gestures both during and following the disruption.

An all-hands-on-deck effort processed requests for refunds as quickly as possible, and the airline mobilized volunteers to complete the vast majority of requests within the seven-day timeframe prescribed by the DOT.

It also quickly built and launched a microsite to serve as an additional channel for handling refund requests.

Customers were able to rebook travel with no additional cost, and Southwest granted all reasonable reimbursement requests for out-of-pocket expenses (including costs incurred from circumstances beyond the airline’s control).

The OACP conceded that the airline properly handled the vast majority of refund requests.

However, the investigation found that Southwest did not promptly process refund requests made through the Microsite unless the passenger making the request had a cancelled or significantly delayed flight that was scheduled to operate between December 24, 2022, and January 2, 2023.

Flight Status Notifications


Despite the volume-related delays in Automated Outbound Messaging (AOM), Southwest strived to notify customers of flight disruptions.

Post-event, the airline upgraded communication tools to ensure timely notifications, reflecting a commitment to continuous improvement.

Post-Storm Initiatives


Southwest states that it sincerely regrets the inconvenience caused to all customers who were affected by the operational disruption that occurred following Winter Storm Elliott.

The carrier believes that it has learned a great deal from the Winter Storm Elliott disruption, and it
has taken a number of steps to further improve customer care during any future disruptive events.

In the aftermath of Winter Storm Elliot, Southwest undertook strategic measures to fortify customer care and operational resilience.

Operational enhancements outlined in the Disruption Action Plan have contributed to robust performances, even during peak travel periods like Thanksgiving.

Transforming Customer Experience


Southwest’s roadmap for enhancing the customer experience materialized with digital bag tracking, flight credits that never expire, improved digital self-service capabilities, and expanded rebooking options.

New Compensation Policy

Effective by April 30, 2024, customers experiencing controllable cancellations and delays of three or more hours can request additional compensation (a voucher of $75 or greater). This proactive step underscores Southwest’s commitment to putting customers first.

Leadership Comments and Future Commitments


Bob Jordan, President & CEO of Southwest Airlines, emphasizes the airline’s customer-centric ethos. “Our commitment to customers has been central to our success across our 52-year history,” he states, highlighting the enduring values of operational reliability, high-quality customer service, and legendary hospitality.

Summary


Southwest Airlines says that it remains proud of its resilient employees and their unwavering commitment to customers during and after the Winter Storm Elliot disruption.

With a legacy spanning over five decades, the carrier states that it remains dedicated to operational excellence, exceptional customer service, and the legendary hospitality that has made it one of the world’s most trusted airlines.

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Southwest Airlines has now reached a global settlement with the US DOT following its investigation of the 2022 Winter Storm Elliot disruption
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