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.

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, one of his volunteer activities is writing for us.

  • Pegtoo

    Trying to get a refund after the flight departed? And asking for your help to do this? Sigh.

  • Inquirer1111

    Agree, dismissed, Southwest is the best. Surprised when she found the better deal, she didn’t try to just use the existing reservation funds to buy the other one.

  • MarkKelling

    Southwest used to not require you to do anything to cancel your flight other than not show up. If you were not on the plane, in bout 2 -3 days a credit for it would show up in your online account. It wasn’t that long ago they changed it an wow were the customers upset about it. But just like all their other unpopular changes (free drink coupons actually expire, you can’t use travel funds to book a ticket for someone else, you have to upgrade to full Y equivalent to stand by) have made them more like other airlines, they still are more flexible than everyone else.

    In this case, I fail to see what good a screen shot of the cancellation screen is. I, as well as anyone else who has the Southwest app (which by the way kinda sucks) can go to any of my Southwest flights and get to that screen but it means nothing. It is the NEXT screen that actually states the flight has ben cancelled that maters.

  • Rebecca

    Why in the world would you take a screen shot of the cancellation page, but not the confirmation? The answer is because it wouldn’t let you cancel – the plane had already flown. Its one thing to admit a mistake, its quite another to lie and include a screenshot from after the fact hoping to trick people. What is with all the outrageous customer behavior lately? Summer must have brought out all the crazies.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    I’ve actually never cancelled a flight. I would expect (but maybe I’m wrong), that you’d get an email, and it would arrive almost immediately. Is that true or do you have to take a screenshot (of the actual cancellation page)?

  • Grandma

    I cancel SW flights often (then refare them). You get a confirmation page – that you can print or make a screenshot, but it is not necessary. In max 5 min after the cancellation you get an e-mail, confirming the cancellation, the reservastion number, flight #s, and giving you info about your travel fund: amount, expiration day.

    If he tried to cancel after departure time, the cancellation did not go through.

    My recommendation cancelling any service: do not wait for it till the last minutes. Always give yourself time to wait for/check confirmation.

  • Grandma

    You might want to check the new stand-by requirements. Actually they have improved a lot.:-)

  • LeeAnneClark

    I’m with you. This one smells fishy. It makes zero sense to take a screenshot of the cancellation page before it’s gone through, and then not even bother to check to confirm it was cancelled. And the time stamp nails it…flight had already departed.

    I have to say this one really ticks me off. Trying to use Christopher’s team to defraud the airline? Disgusting. And that’s what this is…fraud.

    Maybe there’s a good reason Ms Harvey didn’t try to cancel her flight…but the moment she tried to get her money back by lying about having cancelled the ticket (which, clearly, she didn’t), she lost all credibility. Sorry…no pity here.

  • SierraRose 49

    Totally agree with you both. If Chris Elliott wants to showcase these stories, perhaps it is to show that the individuals requesting assistance have not been totally forthright, as in trying to cancel a flight after it has taken off. This request certainly doesn’t fall under the heading of “Legitimate Complaints.” To me, it clearly sounds like “Oops, I made a mistake. Get my $$$$ back for me.” And I don’t think it was unfortunate for Harvey that Elliott advocates labeled this as a “Case Dismissed.” That is exactly what it should be.

  • greg watson

    it appears that the OP was confused………………… least she wanted to be confused to her benefit. A real shame that Elliott had to be called in. This one is truly……dismissed !

  • Rebecca

    The really crazy thing is that with Southwest, if she owned the mistake and politely requested a credit, I’d say there’s a decent chance they’d give it to her, or at least a $100 voucher or something. But because she lied, that chance drops to zero, as it should. I’m confident I could write a letter with the original, truthful set of facts that would have about a 75% chance of first try success. Admittedly, I used to deal with these letters for a living, so I know what to say. But there’s plenty of advice out there on how to ask the right way. Not owning your mistake is a deal breaker. A jab at your stupidity showing you can laugh about it and a compliment to the business, you’ve got a good shot if you’re looking for credit and not cash.

  • Rebecca

    It occurred to me it may be actually useful to illustrate what I mean with an example:

    I purchased a flight, confirmation ABCD on 7/1/17. I found a flight that better worked for my schedule and booked new flight, confirmation EFGH on 7/2/17. My travel on EFGH was excellent and I look forward to flying Southwest for my next trip.

    Unfortunately, I forgot to cancel confirmation ABCD and was a no-show for this flight. Who knew that travel to Des Moines was so exciting that I could forget to cancel my erroneous booking? I am hoping to be able to apply the funds from confirmation ABCD to future travel before 7/1/17 – the $230 would be great to use on my next Southwest flight. I understand this was my error, but would appreciate your consideration.

  • C Schwartz

    Wow. The consumer thought they could fool the elliott advocate with a screenshot dated after the flight left?

    I think it is helpful that they highlight these cases because it shows that even with a (relatively) more consumer friendly policy people will go to some length to not take responsibility for their own mistakes.

  • Annie M

    She screen printed the wrong screen. She should have screen printed the next screen thst would have showed the cancellation. Perhaps she was so busy screen printing she forgot the hit the enter button.

  • KennyG

    Unfortunately in this case she could have never gotten to the next screen since she was attempting to cancel her flight after the flights actual departure.

  • MarkKelling

    I can’t find an official stand by policy on their web site, all that the search returns is their forum conversations about how gate agents put some passengers on standby when they missed an earlier flight. Not helpful because if it is not in writing, they can do whatever they feel like that day.

    I stated the last official stand by policy that’s posted on Southwest’s web page.

  • joycexyz

    No wonder most airlines have a no refund policy!

  • joycexyz

    And shame on her.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Seems pretty clear to me she didn’t forget anything. She never would have gotten to the next page, as (based on the time stamp) it was too late to cancel the flight, as it had already departed. There is only one reason she would have screenshot the page she did…because once she pressed the enter button it would have clearly stated that cancellation was unavailable. Looks pretty obvious that she printed the page just before that so she could falsely claim she’d cancelled, in an effort to defraud the airline.

    If that’s not the case, I’m all ears to hear an explanation…but I suspect none will be forthcoming.

  • DChamp56

    “There was indeed a screenshot of the cancellation page, but the time stamp on it is after the flight departed.” Sounds like someone was trying to scam you and the airline.

  • James Dworak

    Been their done that.
    This one’s easy, they would have sent a cancellation email to her.
    Lesson learned imo

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