When Southwest Airlines follows its contract of carriage but a traveler does not, we won’t get involved

When passengers arrive late for or miss an outbound flight, they’re considered “no-shows.” That’s an industry standard policy. All remaining flights, including their return, are automatically canceled. Their ticket is worthless.

That can be a real kicker for infrequent travelers.

Bruce Blakely can tell you about that. He purchased a round-trip ticket on Southwest Airlines, and when he found out he was unable to leave on his departure date of June 18, he then booked a one-way ticket departing on June 20. He still planned on using his original return ticket.

On June 18, Southwest sent a message to Blakely that his “ticket had been forfeited since [he] did not take the outbound leg.” In other words, the return flight he was planning on using had just been canceled. Blakely referred to this as a “dishonest and fraudulent business practice.”

Here’s the caveat — he never canceled his original outbound flight with Southwest when he booked his new one-way ticket for June 20.

Despite his best efforts to get Southwest to reinstate his return flight, Southwest refused. Blakely would now have to purchase a one-way return ticket, in addition to his one-way departure. He lost all monies spent on his original round-trip ticket, and he wasn’t happy about it (and understandably so):

Nowhere was I informed, before I bought my ticket, that if I did not make the outbound leg, I would be unable to use the return leg. This sharp practice which harms the consumer was concealed. I purchased the return leg, and the flight is still four days away. They are simply stealing my money.

I understand where Blakely is coming from — many travelers have shared this same complaint. They, too, were considered no-shows and lost a substantial amount of money to the airlines — all because they were not aware of the no-show policy.

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When you purchase a ticket, you enter into a contract with the airline. If you don’t show up for your flight, you’re basically in breach of contract — it becomes null and void, and all funds are lost. Breaking the contract results in all remaining flights being canceled.

Unfortunately, there is nothing we can do to help. We have to respect contractual agreements.

Southwest, though, is a cut above by being upfront on its no-show policy. Before a ticket purchase is finalized on its website, Southwest provides a brief description of “what you need to know to travel” that includes its no-show policy. It pays to read through it.

Many airlines are not as forthcoming as Southwest, and it can be difficult to dig through their terms and conditions. That leaves passengers at a disadvantage if they are not aware of the contractual agreement they’re entering into.

To avoid becoming a no-show with Southwest, passengers need to cancel their flight and rebook another (if necessary) at least ten minutes prior to their departure flight. If passengers fail to do so, they are considered a no-show. When this occurs, those flying on its Wanna Get Away fare (its lowest fare) will lose all monies paid.

If Blakely had canceled his original flight with Southwest prior to its departure, he could have applied the value of his ticket toward a new one. Southwest would not have charged a fee for doing this, either.

With regard to international flights, Southwest states, “If you do not make your flight, the amount of your original purchase will be refunded to you in the form of reusable travel funds.” Southwest has one of the more passenger-friendly contracts of carriage.

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You can find Southwest’s no-show policy under Refunds and Lost Tickets on its website.

Regrettably, we were unable to assist Blakely.

To avoid a similar dilemma, here’s how to avoid becoming a no-show.

Once you realize you’re going to miss your outbound flight, inform the airline before your flight takes off. Cancel your original flight and ask to be rebooked on an alternate one (if necessary). Request a confirmation in writing that your remaining flights, including your return, will remain valid. Don’t take this for granted, even if the airline’s representative says it will not be a problem.

When booking connecting flights on different airlines, make sure they’re all on the same itinerary. If your flight on the first airline is delayed, causing you to miss your connection on a different airline, you can rebook your flight at no cost (or for a nominal fee). If you book your flights on separate itineraries and miss your flight, you would be considered a no-show and would have to purchase a new ticket.

Airlines also have fixed deadlines for check-in, arriving at the departure gate, and checking baggage. Passengers who miss any deadline can lose their reservation and any rights to compensation.

The airlines have been under attack recently, and it would serve them well to make passengers their top priority. They should be aware of recurring problems that passengers run into and become proactive at keeping them informed. At Elliott.org, we have been successful in protecting many travelers from the pitfalls of travel with actionable information.

It’s unfortunate that Blakely had to forfeit the funds spent on his original round-trip ticket, and I understand his frustration. If he had canceled his original flight before booking a new one, Southwest would have been accommodating.

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Whether we agree with the no-show policy or not is irrelevant. As long as it’s part of a contractual agreement, we can’t get involved.

Stephanie Patterson

Stephanie is a published book author and travel columnist with a focus on preparation and protocol. She is committed to helping travelers be informed and avoid potential problems while traveling. Stephanie’s most recent book is “Know Before You Go: Traveling the U.S. and Abroad”. For travel insight when planning your trip, visit Know Before You Go Travel. Along with writing, Stephanie does interior designing.

  • Rebecca

    Southwest has by far the best policy in the airline industry. The OP had until 10 minutes before departure to cancel and apply the funds – with no fee – to a new ticket. Most airlines will charge a steep change fee or you lose it all together. You can very easily cancel through their website; it’s straightforward and easy to find. I’m glad this wasn’t advocated, that would be entirely unfair to a customer with a real problem.

  • sam

    Also, no-showing without canceling is the kind of jerk behavior that results in airlines doing things like overbooking flights.

    Don’t do this. It’s not difficult to notify the airline if you have a change in plans, and it will only be to your benefit, first because while you’re not guaranteed any money back on, say, a non-refundable ticket, you might get *something*, whereas if you don’t call, you’ll definitely get nothing (or even less than nothing, as shown here). Second, we all think airlines are awful when they don’t adhere to their promises, so why on earth would it be A-OK for passengers to essentially do the same thing?

  • disqus_6gHRd4OpK5

    I don’t understand why did he bought a new ticket instead of just changing the date of the original flight, which Southwest allows with no fee (you just need to pay any difference in fare)?

  • y_p_w

    Probably another airline.

  • y_p_w

    It’s just way too easy to cancel on Southwest and get full credit. There’s no reason why the LW couldn’t have done that easily.

  • finance_tony

    On the other hand, if you check in online and plan on no-showing, the flight might have a mechanical or other delay that would entitle you to a refund for Trip in Vain.

    I’ve never deliberately put myself in that situation, but there certainly is a possibility that you could get something back by not canceling ahead of time.

  • Alan Gore

    And Southwest is the one airline that gives you full credit for a canceled flight, provided you do it before flight time.

  • Don Spilky

    This doesn’t smell right to me. Instead of purchasing an entirely new one way ticket for the later date, why not simply modify the existing reservation? Reads to me like OP was playing a version of the “hidden city” game. Possibly the R/T at that date (longer stay) plus a one way was significantly cheaper than the R/T at the later date.

  • Annie M

    The real problem is that just because you can buy your own tickets doesn’t mean you are a travel agent and are aware of all the rules of the airlines and are actually qualified to book your own tickets.

    It’s not as simple as people think. Use a travel agent if you don’t know how the airline work.

  • Annie M

    Because he thought he knew how to act as a travel agent.

  • I was going to write, almost verbatim, what you have written here.

  • Bob Curtis

    Exactly what I was going to say.

  • jim6555

    If a passenger is not sure of how to best handle a cancellation situation on Southwest, all they need to do is call the toll-free number for Southwest Reservations (800-435 9792). The agent will book them on a new flight or flights and not charge a fee for this service. Of course, the passenger must pay for the difference between the existing fare and the new (if any). Had the OP done this, he would have avoided needless frustration and saved a lot of money.

  • cscasi

    The chances of that happening are so slim, I would not risk it; just on the possibility I “might” get something back.

  • cscasi

    Or, call the airline customer service and ask.

  • Kairho

    No games. OP simply was a babe in the woods and failed to even think of reading the Changes or Refiunds sections of the website when he knew he had to male a change.

  • joycexyz

    I can’t understand why he didn’t cancel the original flight.

  • joycexyz

    Very well said. Much of the airline behavior that we complain about is self-defense.

  • joycexyz

    Slim to none.

  • joycexyz

    Babe in the woods??? Can’t travel without Mommy? The gaming sounds more like it.

  • joycexyz

    Or learn to read.

  • finance_tony

    On Southwest, sure. But on legacy airlines where any change fee would be greater than the reusable portion of the ticket, I see no other rational alternative.

  • PsyGuy

    The LW didn’t think they needed too, they likely thought the missed flight was worthless, and planed on a new OW ticket and take the original returning flight.

  • PsyGuy

    Because we didn’t get to enter into fair negotiation for what those promises would be. They, the business wrote all the terms and the conditions. The only choice we got was to give them our money or not to give them our money.

  • PsyGuy

    SW is also generally more expensive than legacy airlines.

  • PsyGuy

    The LW didn’t know. Travel is one of the most complex transactions that exists.

  • PsyGuy

    Assuming you get the right answer.

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