Southwest Airlines is bracing itself for a hefty fine from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) in the wake of the notorious Christmas 2022 travel chaos that left a staggering 16,700 flights canceled, impacting over 2 million passengers. According to reports from Reuters based on a Southwest SEC filing, the DOT has pinpointed several shortcomings on the part of Southwest, citing inadequate customer service, delayed flight status notifications, and sluggish refund processes as grounds for a looming civil penalty.
Based on the wide-scale operational disruption for the Company, which led to the cancelation of a significant number of flights between December 21 and December 29, 2022, the Company could be subject to fines and/or penalties resulting from investigations by the Department of Transportation or other government agencies. See Note 1. On October 27, 2023, the Department of Transportation notified the Company that it has determined the Company had failed to provide adequate customer service assistance, prompt flight status notifications, and proper and prompt refunds and that the assessment of a civil penalty is warranted. The Company could also face monetary damages or other costs resulting from litigation initiated by Customers and/or Shareholders. The Company is currently not able to estimate a range of possible loss for such items.Disclosure on Southwest Airlines Form 10-Q, as filed with SEC on Oct 30, 2023
While weather-related disruptions affected multiple airlines during mid-December, Southwest’s operational woes stood out as it disproportionately bore the brunt of cancellations. For three consecutive days, the airline axed over 60% of its flights, all due to its antiquated internal scheduling system—a major setback earning it the unfortunate moniker “Southworst” among some frequent travelers, and even causing SNL to take aim at the airline in the form of a scathing skit.
CEO Bob Jordan tried to appease critics by highlighting the compensation efforts made—promising refunds, travel credits, free tickets, rewards points, and reimbursements for additional expenses incurred by passengers. However, reports surfaced about the lack of availability and untimely delivery of this compensation, leaving many passengers angered.
Uncle Sam isn’t alone in looking to throw the book at WN; Southwest found itself embroiled in legal troubles as well. Shareholders rallied with a class action lawsuit, accusing the airline of disseminating “materially false and misleading” information over a two-year period that contributed to the holiday meltdown.
Attempting damage control, Southwest emphasized improvements, including upgraded de-icing capacity and increased staffing to better handle winter weather. The airline also took steps towards rebuilding its image, introducing advancements like baggage tracking, a feature that was sorely missed during the Christmas 2022 debacle, when numerous bags went missing. Positive changes were made to their Rapid Rewards program, making elite status more attainable, yet the lingering question remains: will these efforts be sufficient to win back customer trust?
Southwest Airlines seems to be acknowledging its need to step into the 21st century, making strides towards remedying past failures. As they try to restore their reputation and regain the confidence of their customer base, the airline faces an uphill battle to prove that these changes are more than mere cosmetic adjustments. Whether the measures taken will be enough to regain the loyalty of passengers, only time will tell.