Brush fires delayed me and I missed my Southwest Airlines flight — do I have to pay for a new ticket?

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David Sadowski and his wife missed their flight because of brush fires in Tampa. They lost their original tickets, and had to buy new tickets that cost significantly more.

Were the Sadowskis treated fairly?

For a number of years, the Sadowskis have been taking spring and fall vacations to Florida. They fly Southwest Airlines from Manchester-Boston Regional Airport to Tampa International Airport, checking for the best fare and booking in advance. On this trip, the return portion cost $120 each.

Sadowski and his wife drove from Tampa to Venice, Fla., where they stayed. As they were returning to the Tampa airport at the end of their trip, though, traffic was backed up and detoured because of road closures caused by brush fires.

Sadowski called the airline twice to tell them they were cutting it close. They finally managed to return the rental car ten minutes before flight departure.

“We called the airline to see if there was a flight delay, but there wasn’t,” says Sadowski. “Fox let us use the car until the next day and gave us directions to a hotel. I called Southwest and was told the next flight to Manchester-Boston was the following day.”

The new fare came to a whopping $742.

“We took it because we had no other choice,” he says.

The couple lost the money they paid for the original return tickets. They believe that under the circumstances, the missed flight price should have been credited to their new flight.

Except, that’s not how it works. When you miss a nonrefundable flight, the fare is forfeited. Although Sadowski called Southwest to notify it of the delay, he didn’t cancel his tickets. If he had done that anytime up to ten minutes prior to departure time, he would have been able to apply the cost of the original booking to the new tickets.

Southwest has a lenient cancellation policy. Sadowski didn’t cancel, so it considered him and his wife no-shows. According to the airline’s Purchasing and Refunds page:

If you are not planning to travel on any portion of this itinerary, please cancel your reservation at least ten minutes prior to the scheduled departure of your flight. Customers who fail to cancel reservations for a Wanna Get Away fare segment at least ten minutes prior to travel and who do not board the flight will be considered a no show, and all remaining unused Wanna Get Away funds will be forfeited.

Southwest was acting in accordance with its policy when it refused to credit the value of the unused tickets to the purchase of new tickets. Sadowski also felt that the circumstances were unfair because the price of the new tickets was much more than what he had initially paid. Between the increased fare and the loss of the original purchase, they spent $980 to get home.

When Sadowski questioned the fare increase, Southwest explained that he originally bought a discounted, advance-purchase ticket. When he made the new booking, it was a last-minute fare during spring break. That’s a peak travel period, and Southwest would have charged the fare difference regardless of the reason for missing the flight.

Prior to asking our advocates for help, Sadowski could have tried to contact Southwest’s executives for help. We list their executive contact information on our website. He also could have posted a query to our help forums, which are staffed by travel industry experts and often read by company executives. Our forum advocates may have had helpful suggestions.

The bottom line is that Southwest’s cancellation policy is far more generous than those of most other airlines. It’s unfortunate that Sadowski didn’t cancel at least ten minutes prior to departure, because then he would have been able to apply the value of the original tickets to the new fare.

Our advocates didn’t feel that there was anything that they could really do for Sadowski, so we have to file this as Case Dismissed.

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