Texas family out 5 days, $5K after Southwest mess

AUSTIN (KXAN)– Christmas has come and gone, but the Desousas are still here.

“I have two kids and my wife. We’re just trying to figure out what to do,” said David Desousa Jr., who is also traveling with his parents.

They’ve been trying to get to southern California for their vacation since Christmas Eve, when their first Southwest Airlines flight was canceled.

“We went back home to College Station. Then, we had another flight that was supposed to leave a few days later. And that one got canceled, as well,” Desousa said.

Instead of dragging his family back to College Station, they decided to stay in an Austin hotel until they could rebook their flights.

Desousa said their hotel in California wouldn’t reimburse them for the nights they missed.

All told, he guesses he’s out four or $5,000.

Lee Rusk estimates he’s spent an extra $600 due to Southwest’s cancelations.

His flight from Phoenix back home to Austin was canceled and the next Southwest flight wasn’t until Jan. 2.

“I have to work, my daughter’s got to work, my wife’s got to work. So, our only opportunity was to drive our rental car back all the way from Phoenix,” Rusk said.

They cut their Christmas trip short to accommodate for the 16-hour drive.

Rusk said his nephew never ended up making it after his canceled flights left him stranded with his kids in Dallas.

“No rebooking possible, they had to fly all the way back to Indianapolis. So, they never got to visit my parents… They missed Christmas,” Rusk said.

Rusk said Southwest offered him a voucher for his canceled flight.

“Got flight credits through Southwest. I’m not sure I want to use it, though, because that experience was pretty horrible,” he said.

Here’s the thing– he doesn’t have to accept that voucher.

According to federal law, it’s illegal for an airline to give you a voucher in a situation like this, if you want a refund.

It’s one of the consumer protections the U.S. Department of Transportation is trying to bring awareness to.

“Under the law, Southwest must provide prompt refunds when a carrier cancels a passenger’s
flight or makes a significant change in the flight, regardless of the reason, unless the passenger
accepts rebooking,” transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg wrote in a letter to Southwest’s CEO Thursday.

He added that the refund has to come within seven business days if a passenger paid by credit card, and within 20 business days if they paid by another method- like cash or check.

In an email earlier Thursday, Southwest told KXAN it didn’t know when refunds would go out, or up to how much they’ll reimburse for other costs like meals, hotels and ground transportation.

“We don’t have specifics yet… but have been moving as quickly as possible given the volume,” the company wrote.

“Teams are working on all of that processing refunds proactively reaching out and taking care of customers who are dealing with costly detours and reroutes,” Southwest CEO Robert Jordan said in a video statement earlier this week.

In his letter on Thursday, Buttigieg also said his office would hold Southwest accountable if it doesn’t reimburse customers’ costs for other transportation.

“Southwest has stated that it will honor reasonable requests for reimbursement for alternate transportation, such as other airline tickets, Amtrak, or rental cars, for those impacted by a flight cancellation or significant flight delay between Dec. 24, 2022, and Jan. 2, 2023. It would be an unfair and deceptive practice not to fulfill this commitment to passengers,” he said.

Buttigieg also pointed to Southwest’s promise to provide customers with meals “when a controllable cancellation or delay results in passengers waiting for 3 hours or more for a new flight.”

He said that includes all passengers who were traveling with the company between Dec. 24 and Jan. 2.

“In addition, Southwest has promised to provide hotel accommodations and ground transportation to and from hotels for any passenger affected by a controllable overnight delay or cancellation,” Buttigieg wrote. “The Department will take action to hold Southwest accountable if it fails to fulfill commitments that the airline has made in its customer service plans for controllable delays and cancellations.”

He also reminded the company that under the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) rules, Southwest has to reimburse folks up to $3,800 for “provable direct or consequential damages resulting from the disappearance of, damage to, or delay in the delivery of a passenger’s baggage.”

The Desousas finally have tickets in-hand Thursday.

“The future is unknown…. We don’t know if our flight will get canceled again. But hopefully it won’t,” Desousa said.

Both he and Rusk plan to submit all receipts for reimbursement through Southwest.

They are sure of one thing that won’t be reimbursed this holiday.

“[We’ll] never get this time back,” Desousa said.

“It’s just the lost time with my parents, right? We could have stayed an extra two days… We didn’t get to spend that time with my parents. And they didn’t get to see… their grandchildren either,” Rusk said.

You can submit your refund request to Southwest here.

You can file a complaint with the DOT here.

You can also find out more information on passengers’ rights for Southwest and other airlines through the DOT’s dashboard here.

Travel advisor tips

Tiffany Ellis, owner of Tiffany Ellis Travel, partners with Austin-based Departure Lounge.

One of her clients, a family, was also stuck in the Southwest mess.

She said she called the airline for not only a refund for their canceled flights, but to also protect their seats on their flight back home.

“I don’t want to be bumped or have any unexpected surprises. Can you give me that reassurance? And they can do that,” Ellis said. “They’ll send you something in writing just to confirm the seats are yours and and that should do it? That should be enough with the tickets.”

She also suggested calling your credit card company to see if they can help.

“Many times, if you’ve booked your flights on American Express, or one of the travel credit cards like Chase Sapphire, they’ll have a built in trip protection that will protect consumers from a trip delay, or a trip interruption canceled flight, things like that. So you can immediately call your credit card and see what benefits you have with them,” Ellis said.

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