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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Emmanuel Camarillo

Southwest Airlines sued for not providing immediate refunds after holiday debacle

A Southwest Airlines employee tries to help travelers find their baggage at Midway Airport on Dec. 26. A major winter storm left crew members, aircraft and passengers grounded for days. (Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times)

A Louisiana man has filed a lawsuit against Southwest Airlines, accusing the carrier of committing breach of contract when it offered him and other passengers credit instead of refunds for flights that were canceled during a winter storm over the holidays.

The proposed class-action lawsuit, filed in New Orleans federal court on Dec. 30 by Eric Capdeville, is seeking damages for passengers on flights canceled since Dec. 24 “and who were not provided a refund and reimbursed for incurred expenses as a result of the cancellation.”

Capdeville alleges in the suit that he had tickets to fly to Portland, Oregon, from New Orleans with his daughter on Dec. 27, but when his flight was among thousands canceled the carrier offered him credit. Southwest also couldn’t accommodate him on another flight, the suit states.

“Southwest’s Contract of Carriage mandates refunds in this situation as well as full compensation for incurred costs and resultant cancellations for the failure of the carriage contract,” the suit states. “Due to Defendant’s cancellation of their flights, Plaintiff, and all putative class members cannot use their airline tickets through no fault of their own and they are not getting the benefit of their bargain with Defendant.”

The suit also claims the Dallas-based airline has further breached its contract by failing to provide refunds within seven days for canceled tickets purchased with credit cards.

Analysts say Southwest’s antiquated computer system, lack of ticket sharing with other major carriers and point-to-point flight systems led to a massive operational failure. More than 15,000 flights were cancelled between Dec. 22 and Dec. 30. The company has issued repeated apologies to customers and employees. The U.S. Transportation Department is investigating. (Getty Images)

Southwest said in a statement that there are efforts underway “to do right by our customers, including processing refunds from cancelled flights, and reimbursing customers for expenses incurred as a result of the irregular operations.” The airline launched a website to help those affected request refunds and reimbursements.

The meltdown at Southwest, which led to more than 15,000 flight cancellations between Dec. 22 and Dec. 30, began with a winter storm that swept across the country. While other airlines recovered after a couple of days, Southwest continued to struggle with crews and airplanes that were stranded far from where they were supposed to be.

The situation prompted the U.S. Transportation Department to launch an investigation into what happened at the airline.

Analysts said one cause of the debacle was that Southwest employs a “point-to-point” flight operating system where many big carriers run on a “hub-and-spoke” basis, which feeds shorter flights back and forth into larger airports. The point-to-point system has planes going from destination to destination in the same direction.

Another reason was workers burned out by mandatory overtime, as well as many who called in sick due to a combination of flu, COVID-19 and RSV infections.

Since then, the carrier has repeatedly apologized to passengers and promised to fix its issues. On Tuesday, Southwest told affected travelers it would give them 25,000 frequent-flyer points, which it says are worth more than $300 in flights.

Southwest included the offer in a letter — another apology for the meltdown — from CEO Bob Jordan.

“I know that no amount of apologies can undo your experience,” Jordan wrote. He added the airline is acting “with great urgency” to process refunds, return lost bags and handle requests for reimbursement of costs incurred by stranded travelers.

Southwest has not disclosed how many passengers were booked on affected flights, but it is likely that far more than 1 million have had a flight canceled.

Contributing: AP

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