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Steve Mollman

The Southwest Airlines debacle made (some of) its rivals do the unthinkable: Cap fares to help stranded passengers

(Credit: Christopher Goodney—Bloomberg via Getty Images)

To say Southwest Airlines is having a bad week on the public relations front would be an understatement. Customers are seething after the airline’s widespread flight cancellations following the massive winter storm that disrupted holiday travel across the nation far outpaced those of industry rivals. Southwest has been canceling upwards of two-thirds of its flights every day since Monday, while its peers are only canceling about 2% due to inclement weather. 

Rival airlines weren’t off the hook for a potential PR black eye, as customers seeking alternative routes took to social media to complain of high prices from other carriers on routes affected by the Southwest meltdown. Now, the great Southwest meltdown of 2022 has done the unthinkable: Gotten capitalist airlines to put price caps on some affected routes and take pity on all those stranded passengers. 

Responding to the moves, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg tweeted on Tuesday evening, “As travelers look to rebook due to Southwest's cancellations, other airlines should cap fares on these routes to help people who need to get home.” Noting that United and American Airlines have gone ahead with price caps, Buttigieg added, “I'm encouraged to see several airlines have now committed to this step—all of them should.”

Complaints below his tweet hinted at the level of frustration among airline passengers. One traveler tweeted on Wednesday, “@AmericanAir does not care. They’re price gouging villains.”

American replied by tweet, “We’re doing our part to help get people where they need to be and we’re putting a cap on fares for select cities.”

Fortune reached out to American but didn’t receive an immediate reply. The Department of Transportation, when contacted by Fortune, pointed to Buttigieg’s Tuesday tweet. The agency will conduct a probe into why Southwest had such problems.

In another scathing comment, a traveler tweeted on Tuesday, “This should be illegal… I was on a cancelled @SouthwestAir flight so I am trying to rebook something so I can go home this year (literally… no southwest flights until Jan) and flights today are TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS ONE WAY?!?!?”

She shared a screenshot of ticket prices from various airlines in excess of $2,000 for a one-way flight between San Diego and Orlando.

Another user replied, “This is absolutely disgusting and unethical on so many levels.”

United responded to Fortune: “We continue to get people to their destinations as safely and quickly as possible this busy holiday season, and our latest effort includes capping fares in select cities to make sure our flights are available to as many customers as possible.”

Southwest shared a statement with Fortune reading in part: “While Southwest continues to operate roughly one third of its schedule for Thursday, Dec. 29, we plan to return to normal operations with minimal disruptions on Friday, Dec. 30…We know even our deepest apologies – to our Customers, to our Employees, and to all affected through this disruption – only go so far.” 

It pointed to a “travel disruption” website where customers can submit refund and reimbursement requests for meals, hotels, and alternate transportation, as well as get help with tracking down lost luggage.  

But, noted Cowen Inc. analyst Helane Becker in a Bloomberg Television interview Wednesday, Southwest has been warned for years about its outdated technology it should have updated well before the storm this month. 

“People have a right to be really angry and annoyed,” Becker said. “They should have invested years ago in these systems and they just didn’t.”

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