Southwest is willing to fix most problems — so don’t threaten legal action

When Southwest Airlines cancels Cameron Rostron’s flight and it can’t be rescheduled for several days, she asks to be rerouted. She assumes this will be a complimentary change. But it isn’t, and then she threatens legal action if she isn’t refunded the change fees and fare differential. Is this threat necessary?

Question: Last month, my child and I had tickets on Southwest to fly home from Philadelphia to Kansas City. The flight was canceled about six hours prior to departure. I contacted customer service and was told that there would not be another flight available for at least 48 hours.

To avoid missing work, I asked if there were any flights leaving sooner from other airports. We were switched to a flight from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Kansas City, leaving late that night. We took a train to Baltimore and were able to get home on that flight.

I can’t believe that Southwest insisted on charging me $557 to be able to switch to a flight from another airport so that we could get home without delay.

I’d like to get a refund or credit for the $557. I’ve sent a request to their customer service via their website, and got back a generic response that said “sorry you had a bad experience, we’ll give you a $150 voucher.” I sent another message to them to say that is insufficient, but they have not responded. Can you help? — Cameron Rostron, Kansas City, Mo.

Answer: When I read your complaint and noted that Southwest was involved, I was confident that this could easily be resolved. And I wondered why you hadn’t been able to correct the problem yourself.

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Then I read your emails to Southwest.

In your emails to me, you were polite and cordial. But in your emails to Southwest, you (and your husband) put on your lawyer hat and made legal threats that were unnecessary. You set a tone that did not engender a spirit of cooperation.

“Eventually this will become a lawsuit, if necessary,” you told me. “I’m a corporate lawyer, and my husband is a law professor who teaches people how to bring this kind of case, so he’s chomping at the bit to turn it over to counsel experienced with litigating class action claims against Southwest. He’s willing to go to any lengths with this, just to prove a point.”

I did not think that was necessary.

Your case underscores the importance of beginning any attempt at a resolution in an amicable manner. Many problems that we see can be resolved without legal intervention and making threats to bring a lawsuit usually backfires for the consumer — even if you are a lawyer.

Southwest is one of the most customer-friendly airlines that we know of, and your request was completely reasonable. You should not have to pay a change fee and a fare differential when your flight is canceled and you accept a reroute.

Someone at Southwest made a not-so-customer-friendly decision that you should be charged $557 to get home from an alternative airport. A change that caused you to incur the additional cost of a train ticket to get to Baltimore to be able to fly home.

But, as I pointed out to you, the next mistake was yours.

After your first email to a Southwest customer service did not result in your desired outcome, you and your husband went straight to Southwest’s general counsel instead of a Southwest executive contact as we list on our site.

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That email to Southwest pointed out that both you and your husband are lawyers, and that you could easily take this case to court. I found your letters to be polite but unnecessarily adversarial. The letter from your husband began:

Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am writing to give you notice of a legal issue that has arisen. I want to give you a fair chance to resolve it appropriately before I take further action on it.

Not surprisingly, Southwest did not respond.

We see time and time again that threats of legal action often have the exact opposite effect that the consumer is hoping for in these situations.

I contacted Southwest on your behalf and your problem was easily resolved. Our executive contact agreed that you should not have been charged for the “privilege” of getting home through an alternative airport.

You received your requested refund and you are pleased with this outcome.

Remember, in the future, save the big guns as a last resort. You had a company on your side that is known for friendly customer service — no big guns needed here.


Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle is the executive director of Elliott.org. She is a consumer advocate, writer and licensed clinical social worker who spends as much time as possible exploring the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Friedman Read more of Michelle's articles here.

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