Southwest’s cancellation policy is lenient, but not this lenient

Carol Harvey says she canceled her Southwest Airlines ticket. Southwest says she was a no-show.

Who’s right?

Finding the answer means taking a closer look at Southwest’s cancellation policy, one of the most lenient and fair in the airline industry. And it suggests that even the most lenient and fair policy has its limits.

Southwest Airlines has a cancellation policy that other airlines should adopt. Even “nonrefundable” tickets can be canceled without necessarily losing your money. For example, here is what the Southwest fare information page says about its lowest cost “Wanna Get Away” fare: “Fares are nonrefundable but may be applied toward future travel on Southwest Airlines for the originally ticketed passenger only.”

There are conditions attached, and you have to stay on top of the details, but it does give you additional scheduling flexibility. However, this assumes that you cancel the reservation. It does not apply if you are a no-show. And that’s the $253 issue in dispute between the airline and Carol Harvey of New Braunfels, Texas. She says she canceled, but Southwest says she was a no-show.

Harvey bought a Southwest Wanna Get Away ticket. Later, she found a different flight that would better meet her schedule and bought a ticket for it. But then she decided the first flight would work and canceled the second ticket — or so she thought.

“I used the SWA mobile app to cancel my flight and thought it had gone through,” she says. “I took a screenshot of the ‘cancel this reservation’ just before I hit ‘yes, cancel’ and thought it had gone through, but it appears that it did not go through and because I have no proof that I did cancel, Southwest has kept my funds and counted my flight as a no-show.”

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The key words here are “I have no proof that I did cancel.”

This is what the airline says about no-shows on that same web page. It applies not only to Wanna Get Away fares but also to the more expensive categories:

No Show Policy: If you are not planning to travel on any portion of this itinerary, please cancel your reservation at least 10 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 (10) 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.

When she didn’t get a credit for the unused ticket, Harvey called Southwest customer relations several times, escalating the issue to higher levels. The representatives all told her that there was nothing in their reservation system to show that she had actually canceled that second reservation. The computer records had her as a no-show and there was nothing the airline representatives could do. So she contacted us.

Our advocate looked at the paper trail Harvey provided and spotted an important inconsistency. There was indeed a screenshot of the cancellation page, but the time stamp on it is after the flight departed.

Our advocate still reached out to an executive contact at Southwest, who, in addition to reviewing the notes of Harvey’s customer service calls, also checked to be sure that there had not been any computer system problems that day which could have prevented the cancellation from being confirmed.

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Southwest concluded the problem was a user error on Harvey’s part:

Our research indicates that there were no system issues reported on the day she attempted to cancel her flight.

It appears she got to the cancel page, but didn’t actually press the button which would have completed the transaction and which would have been confirmed with a cancellation email. If the reservation was cancelled, she would have received confirmation within the app and an email confirmation stating the reservation was canceled.

We depend on the customer to immediately contact us if they do not receive any type of cancellation confirmation during the cancellation process.

There was nothing to change Southwest’s conclusion that she was a no-show. Unfortunately for Harvey, we have to label this as a “case dismissed.”

The takeaway for the rest of us is something we all need to keep in mind when making or canceling any kind of travel reservation: Be sure you get a confirmation number. If you don’t get one right away, contact the provider to be sure what you think you did actually went through. Ultimately, it’s up to the traveler to pay attention to the details.

Abe Wischnia

Abe started his working career as a television news reporter and newscaster before moving to corporate communications and investor relations. Now retired and having learned useful tips from Elliott.org, one of his volunteer activities is writing for us. Read more of Abe's stories here.

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