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. Read more of Stephanie's articles here.

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