Brush fires delayed me and I missed my Southwest Airlines flight — do I have to pay for a new ticket?

David Sadowski and his wife missed their flight because of brush fires in Tampa. They lost their original tickets, and had to buy new tickets that cost significantly more.

Were the Sadowskis treated fairly?

For a number of years, the Sadowskis have been taking spring and fall vacations to Florida. They fly Southwest Airlines from Manchester-Boston Regional Airport to Tampa International Airport, checking for the best fare and booking in advance. On this trip, the return portion cost $120 each.

Sadowski and his wife drove from Tampa to Venice, Fla., where they stayed. As they were returning to the Tampa airport at the end of their trip, though, traffic was backed up and detoured because of road closures caused by brush fires.

Sadowski called the airline twice to tell them they were cutting it close. They finally managed to return the rental car ten minutes before flight departure.

“We called the airline to see if there was a flight delay, but there wasn’t,” says Sadowski. “Fox let us use the car until the next day and gave us directions to a hotel. I called Southwest and was told the next flight to Manchester-Boston was the following day.”

The new fare came to a whopping $742.

“We took it because we had no other choice,” he says.

The couple lost the money they paid for the original return tickets. They believe that under the circumstances, the missed flight price should have been credited to their new flight.

Except, that’s not how it works. When you miss a nonrefundable flight, the fare is forfeited. Although Sadowski called Southwest to notify it of the delay, he didn’t cancel his tickets. If he had done that anytime up to ten minutes prior to departure time, he would have been able to apply the cost of the original booking to the new tickets.

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Southwest has a lenient cancellation policy. Sadowski didn’t cancel, so it considered him and his wife no-shows. According to the airline’s Purchasing and Refunds page:

If you are not planning to travel on any portion of this itinerary, please cancel your reservation at least ten minutes prior to the scheduled departure of your flight. Customers who fail to cancel reservations for a Wanna Get Away fare segment at least ten minutes prior to travel and who do not board the flight will be considered a no show, and all remaining unused Wanna Get Away funds will be forfeited.

Southwest was acting in accordance with its policy when it refused to credit the value of the unused tickets to the purchase of new tickets. Sadowski also felt that the circumstances were unfair because the price of the new tickets was much more than what he had initially paid. Between the increased fare and the loss of the original purchase, they spent $980 to get home.

When Sadowski questioned the fare increase, Southwest explained that he originally bought a discounted, advance-purchase ticket. When he made the new booking, it was a last-minute fare during spring break. That’s a peak travel period, and Southwest would have charged the fare difference regardless of the reason for missing the flight.

Prior to asking our advocates for help, Sadowski could have tried to contact Southwest’s executives for help. We list their executive contact information on our website. He also could have posted a query to our help forums, which are staffed by travel industry experts and often read by company executives. Our forum advocates may have had helpful suggestions.

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The bottom line is that Southwest’s cancellation policy is far more generous than those of most other airlines. It’s unfortunate that Sadowski didn’t cancel at least ten minutes prior to departure, because then he would have been able to apply the value of the original tickets to the new fare.

Our advocates didn’t feel that there was anything that they could really do for Sadowski, so we have to file this as Case Dismissed.

Diane Perera

Diane and her family love to travel, and they do so as much as they can. Having experienced the downside of travel, and having learned so much from, led Diane to become an advocate and to help fight the good fight.

  • sirwired

    Yes, it stinks that it cost them so much to get home, but if there’s any case at all for no-shows losing their ticket, I’d say flights out of Florida during spring break would be it.

    It would have been nice if Southwest could have “flat-tire-rule’d” them onto a new ticket the next day, but “no” is not an unfair answer. (And I think the Flat Tire Rule usually only applies if there’s another flight available the same day; I don’t think it’s common for airlines to let you change your ticket day for free.)

  • MarkKelling

    I am really surprised that Southwest didn’t do either of the following:

    1. Inform him when he made the first call that he needed to cancel the flight if they thought they were not going to make it.
    2. Offer stand by on a later flight for free.

    The only reason I can see for #2 was that their either was no later flight that day or all remaining flights for the day were booked full.

    When I called Southwest for a similar situation (running late due to traffic being blocked at the airport entrance due to construction), the nice person I talked to on the phone informed me of the 10 minute cancellation rule. I was, thankfully, able to make the flight after all due to some creative back road shortcuts.

    I know airline rules change all the time, but it is still the passenger’s responsibility to know what the current rules are for late arrival and cancellation no matter how many years they may have flown before.

  • jim6555

    When he called Southwest, all Sadowski had to say was “cancel my flight today and put me on the one leaving tomorrow”. If he had used those magic words, his return trip to New Hampshire would have cost $240 less. Perhaps the Southwest reservations agent should have better explained the implications of not cancelling the reservation, but overall, it was Sadowski’s responsibility to cancel. Southwest has the most lenient ticket restrictions of any airline and I can’t find fault with how this situation was handled.

  • LeeAnneClark

    And this is why I’ve become such a nervous Nellie when it comes to getting to the airport on time. I used to wait until the last minute, not wanting to waste my time hanging out at an airport.

    Then I missed a couple flights due to accidents on the freeway.

    That is not a good feeling. Fortunately, both times the airline took pity on me and put me on the next flight at no charge…but that was several years ago. I don’t expect that would happen today.

    I now go HOURS early, even for domestic flights, and will often buy day passes for the airport lounges to make my long wait a little more comfortable.

  • JohntheKiwi

    I feel bad for this one. I also think the flat tire rule could have been applied, if the pax had left the rental and gone into the terminal he might have found a sympathetic counter agent. On the other hand – Fox car rental didn’t find a way to screw him over? That’s a new one!

  • Kristiana Lee

    I’m the same way. For me the time cushion is my “insurance” that I pay for in hours.

  • Dutchess

    I’m with you LeeAnne, I hate waiting around at the airport for hours BUT nothing will ruin a trip faster than a missed flight. Especially international flights where there may only be one flight departing per day! So now I go there at least 3 hours early. Airport lounges make this much more tenable!

  • Bill___A

    It is unfortunate that some sort of compromise couldn’t be reached, but the brush fires are not Southwest’s fault either.

  • Daddydo

    Standby fares are a bit different on Southwest. You can get on, but at the current prevailing fare of that moment. Other airlines let you ride for free to ??? depending on the mood, but they all require a cancellation!
    This is where travel agents do come into play. A call to a good travel agent would have allowed time to cancel the flight and look for a more reasonable flight than $742.00; alternate airports, alternate airlines, all at our disposal of the agent while the customer is stuck in the car in traffic.

  • pauletteb

    Agreed! Have book, get coffee, wait comfortably!

  • AAGK

    I do not understand the folks who plan so far in advance for an amazing deal, but then have no trouble dropping a huge amount without thought at all. Perhaps another airline could get them home at a better rate so they did not have to pay for car and hotel another night or whatever, or the reverse.
    Traffic to the airport is a given.

  • AAGK

    I’m confused now. Isn’t that he did?

  • SSpiffy

    “Sadowski called the airline twice to tell them they were cutting it close. They finally managed to return the rental car ten minutes before flight departure.

    “We called the airline to see if there was a flight delay, but there wasn’t,” says Sadowski.”
    No indication that s/he ever used the words, “Please cancel our flight.”

  • AAGK

    Got it! I assumed the words, “we aren’t making the flight,” made it in there. Again, for such fastidious planners, it odd they didn’t tell the airline this info. Even if they did, sounds like t wouldn’t have mattered but if SW would’ve preserved the credit, I would urge the OP to think about what words he used.

  • y_p_w

    Don’t most airlines have a “flat tire rule”? My wife tends to cut it close. One time she was flying with my kid and I drove them to the airport It was really close and the door was closed about a minute after they managed to get to the gate and the plane was ready to push off. This was on Alaska, and they allowed them to fly on a standby basis on the next flight to the same destination.

    This article claims that Southwest does have such a rule but they generally want to be notified that the passenger is late. And with any flat tire rule, it’s not simply about notifying the airline, but making an effort to get to the terminal to show a good faith to make it.
    Southwest Airlines
    According to some reports, Southwest Airlines has a flat tire rule, but it prefers that passengers call at least 10 minutes prior to scheduled departure to inform the airline that you’re going to be late.

  • y_p_w

    With the typical “flat tire rule” I think even the next day is possible if that’s the only option. However, there would need to be a legitimate attempt to get to the airport rather than just calling in and then heading to a hotel. However, most airlines want the passengers to speak to an agent in person because each case is handled individually.

  • y_p_w

    I still think they needed to actually be at the terminal speaking to an airline employee in person, in which case they might be allowed to fly standby for the next flight out.

  • Maxwell Smart

    unless Southwest lit the fires, why is this story even here ? Southwest are the best U.S. airline, although U.S. airlines need to take a few lessons in service from some Asian carriers, which are by far best in world.

  • y_p_w

    I think standby on the next available flight is typically possible, but you need to get to the airport. I don’t know if they’d allow someone to enter on a boarding pass that’s past the departure time, but perhaps that could be arranged at the ticket counter. Half of it is just being there.

  • Jeff W.

    Perhaps. Since they were flying into Boston-Manchester instead of Boston-Logan, their options were limited. Any other airline would have required a connection. Only SW has season non-stop flights between those two cities.

    However, since the flight occurred during spring break, it is highly probable that all of the airlines would have had just as high walk-up fares

  • MarkKelling

    Yes, Southwest’s stand by procedures are very different and can be very confusing.

    If you bought a Business Select fare on Southwest, it allows you to stand by at no extra charge for any flight to the same destination within the same calendar day.

    If you bought their Anytime fare you can stand by for any EARLIER flight that same day to the same destination. No extra charge.

    If you bought their Wanna Get Away fare, which I am sure the OP did given the price, you have to upgrade to Anytime at the current price to stand by for earlier flights.

    Since they are late, not early, it would have been up to the ticketing agents as far as what they were willing and able to do if the OP had canceled their tickets early enough. Given the time of year, spring break, it was lucky they were able to find seats the next day at any price.

    Still, the customer should have been aware that cancellation of their ticket was required in order to keep the funds. This is presented to you only about 10 times during the reservation process and is printed on the ticket receipt and shown to you again when checking in and printing your boarding pass.

  • MarkKelling

    If TSA is paying attention, no they will not let you through if your flight on your boarding pass is already gone.

    The ticket counter can issue you a standby boarding pass (they have for me in the past) or security clearance pass as needed.

  • MarkKelling

    As with a lot of airlines these days, it depends on who ends up working with you as well as how frequent of a flyer you are with that airline. The more revenue you generate, the more likely it is they will bend the rules in your favor.

  • y_p_w

    In my experiences cutting it close, they typically will even if it’s close to pushback time. However, I wasn’t sure how they would treat it if it were late, although I’m wondering if they would know if maybe a flight has been delayed, since it doesn’t show up on the boarding pass.

    I figured the ticket agents would probably be the ones to go to if it was maybe something like being 15 past the departure time.

  • y_p_w

    However, a lot of the discussion is that the “flat tire rule” is official with some pretty well-established rules, although it’s not necessarily published. I guess part of the reason for not publishing such rules would be that they don’t necessarily want passengers choosing cheaper flight options, but then taking a later flight (that the passenger really wanted) while claiming being delayed on the way to the airport.

  • jae1

    It appears to be a cautionary tale–know the cancellation rules for your airline, and use them. He never flat-out cancelled, so they called it a no-show. Regulars on this site know this, but there are always new people reading.

  • SierraRose 49

    Looked on Google maps and learned it’s 73 miles from Venice to Tampa. On a good day, that would be at least an hour and a half to travel to the Tampa Airport, which is in Northwest Tampa. Have to allow at least 15-30 minutes to turn in the car. Just wonder if Mr. Sadowski left Venice at least 3 hours before his flight. Also seems he may not have checked road conditions prior to making the drive to Tampa. Spring break may also have put more vehicles on all the roads, too.

  • joycexyz

    Checking traffic is always a good idea. I’m sure he would have found info about delays because of the brush fires.

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