Is this enough compensation? Southwest confiscates tickets, offers “deal” to get family home

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By Christopher Elliott

Ray Sandoval paid $650 for his wife and two young daughters to fly from Sacramento to New York on Southwest Airlines.

No, that’s not a typo. For just $150 per person, plus a $50 service fee, the Sandovals made it all the way to Baltimore before Southwest stopped them.

Turns out their fare was too good to be true. They were using a Buddy Pass they’d bought from an employee, which was technically a no-no. But Sandoval had no way of knowing that.

Southwest offered to fly the family back to California for a discounted fare of $1,016, even as two representatives assured him he’d done “nothing wrong.” Is that enough compensation?

You might be wondering how the Sandovals got caught. Well, Buddy Passes allow you to fly on a standby basis, and technically the airline considers you a “nonrevenue” passenger.

When the Sandovals kept getting bumped from their flights, they had an angry confrontation with an agent. In the confrontation, the agent insisted they get out of her way so she could take care of “paying customers,” while they insisted on being treated with courtesy because they were paying customers. When the agent saw the Buddy Passes, she suspected foul play.

Conflict at the gate

“I am confiscating these four tickets,” he was told.

The agent added,

Flying Angels provide medical transport anywhere in the world on commercial airlines with a Flight Nurse or Doctor. A Flight Coordinator handles the logistics. The client receives care during the entire transport—bedside to bedside. Visit or call 877-265-1085 to speak with a flight coordinator.

You will have to buy new tickets to the West Coast if you want to get home. I will hold four seats, at a purchase price of $254 each, a real deal, on a plane which leaves tomorrow morning.

You have until midnight tonight to decide what you want to do. That’s all I can do for you. But, let me reassure you, once again, you have done absolutely nothing wrong, Mr. and Mrs. Sandoval. This is not your fault.

She told the family they were victims of a larger scheme among some Southwest employees.

We have the name of the employee who sold these to you right on the ticket. Someone will probably lose their job. This is a rampant problem here at Southwest. You are not the first to be victimized by a Southwest employee selling these Standby/Buddy Pass tickets. It is a huge problem here.

Sandoval sees things differently. In his view, he had been dealing with Southwest all along, even when he bought the Buddy Pass from a rogue employee. Southwest had taken his money, then confiscated his ticket and charged him again for the same flight.

A Southwest employee assured him the airline was bending over to accommodate him by offering a lower fare for his return flight, and urged him to “let it go.”

But he can’t.

“How can an airline like Southwest treat its customers so unprofessionally?” he asks. “How can Southwest confiscate tickets purchased by a customer?” (Here’s a reader who fell ill on a Southwest flight, leading to a hospital visit and a $9,000 bill.)

Southwest responds

I suggested Sandoval send a brief, polite email to a manager at Southwest, explaining his position. (Here’s how to get a refund on a non-refundable airline ticket.)

Here’s how it replied:

Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you recently by telephone about your travel using Southwest Airlines Buddy Passes.

While we can certainly understand your frustration regarding the situation, as I explained to you on the telephone, it is a violation of Company policy for an Employee to sell their Buddy Passes.

The terms of usage indicate (on the reverse side of each Buddy Pass) that the pass is the property of Southwest Airlines and must be surrendered upon request. In this instance, once we become aware that the Buddy Passes being presented for travel were purchased, our Agent confiscated the tickets and further travel would not be permitted using them.

When you requested the chance to purchase a ticket in Baltimore, the only option for purchase for immediate travel was at our Anytime Fare.

As a courtesy to you and your family, our Employee offered you a discounted fare which was no longer available. Since I was not present, I am unable to confirm what pricing was mentioned, but you were ultimately charged $153.00 less per person, or $612.00 total, than our full Anytime Fare. We are unable to do anything further to reduce the amount you paid to return home.

Nevertheless, I regret that you were disappointed with the Customer Service provided by our Employees in Baltimore. We expect our Employees to be helpful, kind and compassionate to all Customers, regardless of what they paid (or did not pay) for a ticket.

Again, we apologize if you are disappointed in us. To be quite honest, pass holders assume all risks associated with the use of the pass. Whether flying again as a nonrevenue pass holder or as a fare-paying Customer, it would be our pleasure to welcome you onboard one of our flights soon.

In other words, sorry — but we’ve done enough.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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