Don’t forget the first step to a refund: Ask for it

When Jefferson Aikin and his wife take a “Wanna Get Away” flight on Southwest, they are bumped from the flight — and given compensation for only one of their airfares. Can our advocates help them do better?

Question: I bought two one-way “Wanna Get Away” tickets on Southwest Airlines for my wife and me for a round-trip flight from Milwaukee to LaGuardia Airport in New York for a total of $458. I received several emails from Southwest about our flights in the days between the ticket purchase date and the departure date, which confirmed in my mind that our tickets were properly booked.

A few days before the date of our return flight to Milwaukee, I received an email from Southwest to check in for our flights 24 hours prior to boarding. I did so the night before the return flight was scheduled to depart.

When my wife and I arrived at LaGuardia Airport, we were told that Southwest had overbooked our flight and we were involuntarily denied boarding. Southwest employees confirmed that I had checked in as directed, but not soon enough to allow my wife and me to board the plane.

After all the other passengers had boarded, there was one seat remaining. A Southwest agent told my wife and me that one of us should take that seat, but neither of us was willing to leave the other behind. Southwest employees then told us that they could book us on a flight the following day, but there was only one seat on that flight and one of us would have to fly as a standby passenger.

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Per a Southwest policy, its agent wrote us a check for $916, four times the $229 rate for a single fare, but it was for only one of us. Southwest refused to give us any other compensation or assistance, including a refund of our other unused ticket. The next day we flew home on a United flight to Chicago-O’Hare Airport and a shuttle to Milwaukee.

Do we have a case against Southwest? Can you help us get compensation for our overbooked flights that we didn’t get to take? — Jefferson Aikin, Milwaukee

Answer: I’m sorry you were bumped from your Southwest flight. I’ve experienced overbooking before myself and remember that anxious feeling about whether I would be able to catch a flight to my final destination.

You received four times the rate you paid for one ticket because Southwest’s contract of carriage provides that in cases of involuntary denied boarding,

Compensation shall be 400% of the fare to the Passenger’s destination or first stopover, with a maximum of $1,350, if the Carrier does not offer alternate transportation that, at the time the arrangement is made, is planned to arrive at the airport of the Passenger’s first stopover, of if none, the airport of the Passenger’s final destination less than two hours after the planned arrival time of the Passenger’s original flight on a domestic itinerary and less than four hours after the planned arrival time of the Passenger’s original flight on an international itinerary.

This policy is in accordance with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s rules regarding bumped passengers on commercial flights.

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You might have used our company contacts for Southwest to pursue a refund of the other airfare. Instead, you contacted our advocacy team for assistance, which reached out to Southwest on your behalf.

Southwest gave us a surprising response. Its agent told us that you and your wife just happened to be the last ones to check in for a flight that was filled with large groups. You were given the correct amount of involuntary denied boarding compensation for the one ticket you could not have used, and when you and your wife decided not to travel on Southwest that day, you might have requested a refund of your tickets — but you never did. You came straight to us to ask for help.

Then a Southwest customer service agent researched your situation, and in what the agent describes as a “nice phone call” with you, provided you a refund of your unused tickets and a $100 voucher for future travel on Southwest. According to the agent, you are happy with this resolution.

Your case is a reminder to all dissatisfied consumers: Contact the company’s customer service department before reaching out to third parties for help — even us — because you might get your case resolved faster by showing the company that you’re willing to work with them. We’re glad to help, but coming to us should be a last resort — not your first course of action.

Editors note: This is one of our most visited columns of 2017. We’re republishing some of our best stories this week.

Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

  • Noah Kimmel

    It is never fun when travel plans are disrupted. Worse, when it isn’t your fault. 2 key lessons here –

    1) book direct / check in early. This will limit your likelihood of being selected for denied boarding. Yes I know Southwest is all direct bookings, but general advice…

    2) Don’t be afraid to ask questions! When disruptions happen, the best thing you can do is to pause and take a deep breath. Get your bearings, then figure out how to move forward in a polite and respectful way. Remember, airlines will usually try to incent voluntary denied boardings vs. involuntary. And if you will be IDB’d, make sure it is counted as such and you don’t accidentally agree to a voluntary bump with inferior compensation or vouchers. Southwest has a lot of fantastic people, but keep in mind, many agents have some flexibility between what they first offer and their final number and even the DOT guidelines on denied boarding allow some wiggle room / options in re-acommodation time and compensation. It is strange Southwest would rather take 2 people off vs. 1, but if you don’t want to split up while on the same reservation, the OP should be clear about what compensation they will get, and the costs / re-acommodation / reimbursements for everyone on the reservation.

  • Michael__K

    People already tend to race to check in very early on Southwest because the check-in time drives your boarding position. It doesn’t matter if every passenger checks in 23+ hours before departure — if there are more passengers then seats, then some of those passengers will be unable to board.

    BTW, it’s not strange they would take 2 people off vs. 1, since the airline is not penalized for forcibly splitting up families. They only have to pay IDB for the number of passengers they cannot seat, and they could even declare the other passengers a “No Show” and cancel their tickets if they don’t agree to be split up. I have witnessed a family with small children (2 parents, 3 small children as I recall) forcibly separated in tears (not on Southwest) because of an IDB situation.

  • jsn55

    Excellent outcome! I was sure that SW would not refund the other tix because they refused to fly separately. Glad to be proven wrong!

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