How long is too long for an airline ticket refund?

Talk about an airline delay! / Photo by Phil Ostrow - Flickr
Question: We have been trying to get a refund from Southwest Airlines for almost one year. It’s a refund that Southwest fully admits it owes, but always finds another excuse not to pay. I hope you can help us.

Last spring, my family had tickets to fly from Fort Myers, Fla., to Milwaukee, Wis. When we arrived at the gate, a Southwest agent told us our flight was oversold and that all seats had been assigned. We were denied boarding.

They informed us that we had two options: either accept a refund of the cost of our return flight and find our own way home, or take the next available flight from Ft. Myers to Milwaukee, which was not until two days later.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines. The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

We took the refund. The agent wrote a check with the numerical amount of $1,387.20. However, she wrote the dollar amount in long-hand as “One Thousand Three Hundred and Seventy Three 40/100.” Therefore, there was a discrepancy in the two identified amounts written on the check.

In all the commotion that was occurring with a number of passengers trying to deal with this same issue, we did not notice Southwest’s error in writing this check. We only discovered the error when we were notified five days later that our bank refused to deposit the check because the dollar amount did not match the legal written amount.

We contacted Southwest by phone, and were told they would write a new check. But we’ve gone back and forth for months, and I’ve been getting passed from one department to another. We’ve also reported this to the Department of Transportation. Still, no check.

As a result of Southwest Airlines’ denying us boarding rights to our scheduled flight, we incurred significant costs to obtain four one-way tickets on another airline. Because we were forced to buy one-way tickets with less than seven days advance purchase, we had to pay the highest rate possible. Can you help us get our money back? — Greg Melgares, Milwaukee, Wis.

Answer: Southwest should have written you a check in the right amount when you couldn’t board. But that’s not all.

Have a look at the airline’s travel policies. Its contract of carriage (PDF download) spells out Southwest’s obligations when you’re turned away at the gate, a process referred to as involuntary denied boarding. Check out section 9 under “Service Interruptions.”

You were entitled to more than just a refund for being kicked off your flight. You should have received twice the sum of the value of your remaining flight coupon or you could have opted for flight vouchers for the same amount.

No question about it, Southwest shorted you.

I’m surprised the Transportation Department didn’t get involved in your case. The involuntary denied boarding compensation requirements are part of federal regulations, and they are well-enforced by the government.

If this ever happens to you again, don’t allow yourself to be processed by a ticket agent. I understand there were crowds at the airport — after all, it was spring break — and that the agents seemed overworked. But this is what they do, and you shouldn’t feel bad if they’re having a stressful day.

Stop the process. Pull up the airline’s contract of carriage on your cellphone and read the paragraphs about involuntary denied boardings. Don’t let them hurry you up and force a resolution. Read the check and make sure it lines up with what the contract says.

I contacted Southwest on your behalf. It called you and apologized, saying the person responsible for your refund had left the company and that your refund had “fallen through the cracks.” It overnighted to you a check for the correct amount and a $500 travel voucher.

120 thoughts on “How long is too long for an airline ticket refund?

  1. Did Southwest issue a large-enough refund?  DOT rules call for a 400% (not 200%, Chris) refund under such circumstances.

    1. They did not get enough!
      They are owed another $1387.20 in cash or check, not vouchers!

      The required compensation is  400% of your one-way fare. Looks like their tickets cost $346.80 round-trip each. Without knowing the breakdown of the total ticket, it’s hard to tell the cost of the segment  where they were bumped. [If the cost per direction was the same, then they are owed 2x the cost of the round-trip ticket or $693.60 each.] Also it’s due in CASH or CHECK unless the passenger agrees to get some other form of compensation.

      The Rule:
      * If the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to arrive at your destination between one and two hours after your
      original arrival time (between one and four hours on international flights), the airline must pay you an amount equal to 200% of your one-way fare to your final destination that day, with a $650 maximum.
      * If the substitute transportation is scheduled to get you to your destination more than two hours later (four hours internationally), or if the airline does not make any substitute travel arrangements for you, the compensation doubles (400% of your one-way fare, $1300 maximum).

      1.  CORRECTION This new compensation amount went into effect only 23AUG 2011 (but passed into law April  2011). If he was bumped prior to that date then the compensation was only 200% of the value of the ticket.
        I apologize for not noticing the dates on the article. It said he was waiting for ALMOST ONE YEAR.

  2. Glad it worked out for the OP in the end. But shame on Southwest. They owe the OP more than what they got. A refund + credit is what they should’ve gotten on the day. A year later, the same rules do not apply. To make it right, I think Southwest should give them each a free r/t flight to anywhere SW flies. In this day and age, and with a company as big as SW, do NOT tell me things depend on individual employees. Every company has a system. Because SW’s failed, they need to pay up.

  3. Yes, we do need a law that requires prompt refunds. Airlines should be subject to hefty penalties–payable to the customer–when they screw up like this. When normal humans “forget” to pay their bills, there are consequences. Airlines just seem to have excuses and “the person responsible left the company” is definitely one of the worst.

    No way should SWA have received an interest free loan from these travelers!

  4. I’m not sure we need a law requiring prompt refunds … we need a law requiring that refunds delayed more than a month after the refund date incur interest at 25.5% (which I read somewhere is the avg CC rate anymore) from the date the refund should have been paid.

  5. My clients have a refund in 10 business days fror something normal and 30 days for something abnormal. For the few dollars that an agency charges, wouldn’t it be wonderful not to have to fight these stupid battle. You should have had the full refund and in instant sheck for the one way value of the trip.. You all need to get travel agents; it  It would put Elliott into a new column, but sure would save $$$ over the long stretch.

    1.  Once again, a blatant pitch for travel agent services. NO. We do not all need travel agents. The overwhelming majority of flights go without a hitch.  Chris doesn’t report on those, nor should he.

      The reality is that is you are making a domestic plane, hotel, or car reservation a travel agent is not a necessity unless you are very infrequent flier.

      1. IMHO the budget passenger has a lot better chance of being reaccommodated by talking nicely to an AIRLINE desk/gate agent rather than depending on a travel agent.

        Remember, a travel agent needs to REISSUE a ticket or book a new (one-way) ticket [and request a refund for the old one]. In other words, a travel agent is dependent on the AVAILABLE seats his/her GDS shows and that the passenger can afford to buy, whereas the AIRLINE employee can put the passenger in ANY CLASS, or even endorse the ticket to another airline.

  6. What a disgusting offer to the Melgares family

     Greg Melgares did what any American would do. He bought from the Airline (Airtran/Southwest) that offered the best (non-stop) flights for his journey. He also bought the cheapest fare by complying with the airline’s advance purchase requirement (21 days).

    But the system failed him. By the system I mean both the airline and our government. To put it bluntly, he got screwed. So he turns to the last available stop for help – who else but Chris Elliott.

    But Greg deserves more. Let me explain.

    Consider what likely happened to Greg that day in Ft Myers. He and his family got bumped on their flight home. His only real option was to buy four (4) walk-up tickets from another airline. Note that he could not even use the check of Southwest to pay the other airlines – they will not accept it. So Greg, has to either come up with a lot of cash or use his credit/debit card.

    Imagine the agony – how would Greg find out which airline had the cheapest 4 seats available at that moment? Unless he had a GDS that showed near real-time seat availability he will have to rely on CACHED search availability of some internet search sites. Of course, that is if he had a smartphone with a data plan [or was lucky enough to find free wifi in the airport].

    Ok let’s cheat a little bit and use a GDS to “simulate” what he would have had to pay for four walk-up tickets. If he is lucky he may find ONE seat at around $450. But FOUR seats, he may have to go up to Y full fare. [Remember there are other people grabbing seats at the same time for the same route since this was a nonstop flight.] Ok, the Y fares are (each pax): $828.60  from Delta,  $1045.10 from USAir, and $868.60 from American. If he is lucky, United might have several seats on their H-class seats for $493.60 each.

    So, realistically Greg would have to spend at least $500 to $830 per person so he and his family could get home. That meant he had to charge at least $2000 to $3320 on his credit card [right after all the other expenses from his Florida vacation]. As you can see, even if the first Southwest check was good, it ($1387.20) was [likely] not enough to cover the lowest available walk-up fare.
    There is a reason why the DOT requires airlines to pay 400% of the cost of the one-way fare. You will likely need it to pay for the walk-up fare.

    That brings us to the real question – why was he bumped? There was no mention of a weather-related problem or equipment change [had there been, then Southwest would not have given him a check]. Ah, could it be possible that he and his family were the cheapest ones to bump? I suppose so since the price they paid ($346.80) is even lower than today’s lowest 21-day advanced purchase PUBLISHED fare ($412.10) from AirTran.

    This poses a serious social problem. If your rights to being not bumped is proportional to the fare you paid, then poor people will always get shafted first. Someone with more money can kick out Greg’s family because they bought more expensive class tickets the day before the flight and the airline allowed overbooking. I think this is not right!  It is not fair since it requires poorer people to ante up like a poker game.

    1. sorry, that’s not how SWA decides on who to bump. it is strictly the last people to come to the airport for check-in. if they can’t find any volunteers, the last passengers to show up are out of luck. I hate overbooking policies!

      1. Does AirTran (or did it last year when the OP flew) follow SWA policy to the letter? Or is AirTran allowed a sub-culture? Makes me wonder why they did not pay 400% of the one-way fare.

        Added: I checked AirTran COCs till 2009, you are correct, they bump in order of “the last passenger to present himself/herself at the boarding gate”. Well, since AirTran will allow overbooking on the more expensive classes then the rich guy knows he only has to come in earlier (or in SWA’s case pay the early bird fee). I don’t see why that is any fairer since the poor guy does not have the money to buy a Y ticket in the first place.

        1. But they don’t overbook a class of service (Y vs H), they overbook a cabin – so 1st come 1st served no matter what the price.  And believe me, those last minute bookers scream the LOUDEST when they get bumped!

          1.  i was thinking the same thing about class vs cabin, but i couldn’t figure out how to word it. thank you!

    2. To illustrate further how money talks

      AirTran supposedly bumps passengers in the order they present themselves at the boarding gate. But you need to understand that you need a ticket even to get to that position.

      The lowest one-way PUBLISHED fare (before tax) by AirTran for FMY-MKE costs $196 but it must be purchased 21 days in advance. I assume if you don’t have much money, this fare is for you.

      But AirTran has fares that can be bought up to one hour prior departure. They are:

      FMYMKE-FL 20APR12 $$ AA CO DL F9 UA US WN                     
       3 #DXC         394.00 26MAR2   –       –     200 ## – / –  D 
       4 #DXN         394.00 26MAR2   –       –     200 ## – / –  D 
       5  BLA0PNRO    423.00 26MAR2   –       –     200 ## – / –  B 
       6  BLN0PNR     423.00 27MAR2   –       –     200 ## – / –  B 
       7 #YZXC        443.00 26MAR2   –       –     200 ## – / –  Y 

      So let’s say a wealthy guy wants to fly  FMY-MKE tomorrow, here’s seat availability.

      1   FL 639 A. J. D. Y7 W7 B. M. K. RSWMKE 1115A 117P   9 717 0E
                 Q. T. L. R. V. H. E. P. Z. X. G.
      2   FL 431 A. J. D. Y7 W7 B. M. K. RSWMKE  530P 732P   N 717 0E
                 Q. T. L. R. V. H. E. P. Z. X. G.

      He can still book Y class (for either flight) for $443 plus tax.
      No other fare class is available (most especially the cheap ones).

      Now fast forward to check in time. As far as I know, AirTran provides Y passengers COMPLIMENTARY Advanced Seat Assignments.
      Read it here
      Also, according to AirTran:

      Some coach seats offer special benefits:
          Premium coach seats toward the front of the cabin offer priority boarding
          Exit row seats offer additional leg room and priority boarding

      It sure looks like someone with enough money can buy a Y class ticket hours before the flight, get advanced seat assignments, and most probably PRIORITY BOARDING while the rest of the cattle class segregate themselves in boarding groups.

      Holding a cheap ticket, you can increase the chances of not getting bumped by paying $10 to be on the Zone 2 boarding group, or by getting to the airport very early (and checking in online first). Otherwise, if you don’t come early, you still can get bumped by that guy who has Priority.

    3. No, it had nothing to do with cost – he plainly stated that when they arrived at the GATE, they were told all the seats were already filled (which means the flight had already BOARDED, as there are no pre-assigned seats), and they had no seats for them.  Another reason to GET THERE EARLY – especally when travelling with a group.

      1. I understand what you are saying but I don’t have the heart to blame the OP. He got a bad check, waited one year to get money, on top of having to buy 4 walk-up tickets.

        I really hate this overbooking policy of airlines. If you look closely at availability screens, airlines will keep open Y and near-Y seats even if the rest of the classes are closed out. That means that they are overbooking only the expensive (refundable) fares since it is those tickets that they can really lose seats/revenue because they are refundable. Airlines will not lose money on non-refundable fares since if the pax does not show up, it’s bye-bye to their money. So, technically, there is no reason for an airline on a normal flight to bump a pax holding non-refundable tickets. But it happens because the airline OVERSOLD (the expensive) refundable tickets.

        It’s hard to explain this to hard working folks who spend their savings (and plan way ahead) in buying restricted non-refundable fares. They follow the rules to the letter including the required check-in times. What they don’t know is what you said – they really have to be there much earlier because  it’s last one in-first out in bumping.

        The Y class ticket buyer is lucky. If he needs to really fly, he arrives in the airport at the same time but gets priority boarding (ahead of all the bump candidates). If he changes his mind, he simply refunds his whole ticket. Poor people need not apply.

        1. If they were LATE, then they were not due compensation. If your meaning of LATE is they did not arrive ahead of everyone else, then the airlines need to EMPHASIZE that.

          So HOW EARLY do you want the pax to arrive in the airport? Even if you do this, some people will arrive earlier than others. So those who arrive last (even if they are on time) are SOL for bumping.

          The real issue is OVERBOOKING not LATE passengers.

          1.  like i said earlier, i don’t like overbooking either. but it happens.
            and SWA DIDN’T compensate them… they refunded their tickets. nothing more.  this lends credence to my thought that they weren’t there in time (less than 10 min before departure) and they didn’t want to wait around hoping for standby on later flights.
            again… NO COMPENSATION, just a refund.

            and by the way, your money isn’t *poof*gone* when you have a non-refundable fare and don’t show up on SWA.  you get to use the full value of the ticket for 1 year from date of purchase.

        2. I “liked” your comment when I really meant to reply – just because all the seats were full doesn’t mean they were late.  It just means they weren’t as early as everyone else.  If they got there 10 minutes before the required time, they were not late, but all seats could have been filled by that time.

          1. 100% true… except they weren’t given COMPENSATION, only a refund.  which suggests they weren’t due anything extra.

            they keep saying they were “denied boarding” but the likely reality is that they came to the gate after the flight had boarded, less than 10 minutes before departure, when passengers who haven’t showed up yet lose their rights to a seat on that flight and the seats are given to other customers (usually standbys).

            so, i’m sorry, but if they got to the gate 10 minutes prior to flight time, then they WERE late, regardless. most airlines have their doors closed by that point. (and Spirit is already heading to the runway at 10 min prior….true story)

          2. So what’s you’re theory about:

            all the commotion that was occurring with a number of passengers trying to deal with this same issue

            Did ALL of those pax arrive less than 10 minutes before the flight???

            And ALL of them paid for their tickets with cash??  (In the OP’s case, ~2k+ in cash???)  Or SW decided to ignore their own refund policy which explicitly states: “Refunds for tickets purchased with credit cards will be credited to the same credit card.” ???

            Or is your theory that the OP’s are lying about everything and SW didn’t bother to refute them???

          3.  i simply don’t believe them, or a couple other people were late and/or got held up in the TSA line.

            and SWA wasn’t asked about their version of events, they were only contacted about the check discrepancy.

          4. You didn’t answer.  
            You think the OP’s paid cash (~2k+) for their tickets?

            Or do you think SWA ignored their own refund policy (why?)

            Are you trying to convince us that no one is IDB’d unless they arrive less than 10 minutes before departure?

            I’ve personally witnessed a tearful family partially-IDB’d with  the spouses and children split up between flights on consecutive days.  They were already pleading their case before I arrived at the departure gate, which was 40+ minutes before departure.

  7. Considering it takes them 3 nanoseconds to take the money, but up to 3 billing CYCLES ( 3-5 months!) to refund it, yes we need some teeth! 

  8. No, we have enough laws and another law would just confuse the matter as our legislators have difficulty making anything simple and straight forward.

    What we need is ENFORCEMENT of the existing las and the airlines should be required to certify that their employees have been trained in the appropriate DOT regulations.

      1. If DOT has regs that cover this then the regs should be enforced. If the existing regs are being ignored why do you think another law would make any difference?

          1. All states have attorney generals offices with a division to protect consumers in situations like this. In addition you have your courts where you can sue.

            Why is it necessary to have a law to cover every type of incident that crops up?

          2. No, I’m not talking about bad checks but rather no checks as described in this case. The AG, at least in the state I reside, has the authority to take action against a business who withholds a refund due a consumer or does not remit in a timely manner, usually no longer than 90 days.

          3. Everyday is a new learning experience. In Texas our AG, under the consumer protection division, will investigate a citizens complaint with or without a statute on the books. Part of the Don’t Mess with Texas campaign. However, Texas did add a rebate / refund statute in 2007 which can be found in Section 605 in the Texas Business and Commerce Code.

            In addition one might consider there could be a violation of both SOX and The Uniform Unclaimed Property Act (Escheatment) in that there was an outstanding uncashed check that should have been reported.

        1.  That’s a very fact specific scenario.  In the US a prima facie case is made for theft if the check for goods or services is dishonored due to non-sufficient funds (NSF) and not made good within a certain time frame.  Its fraud if the bank account is closed and that fact is know to the maker at the time of the purchase.

          The SW check is neither, as it was not returned NSF so none of the generally applicable bad check statutes would apply.

  9. In this digital age we live in, refunds/rebates often take far longer than is necessary to process and pay out. It’s certainly how these companies prefer to do business, rather than something they have no control over.

        1. If this was indeed SWA, the unused portion of the ticket might still be refundable to SW funds (for later use). The money we are talking about here is only denied boarding compensation (not a ticket refund).

          1. The OP said they took the refund.  I have never seen a carrier do a check, so this is just weird for me to understand.

  10. If it wasn’t for you Chris, I’m not sure anyone would ever get a refund.  There’s a big problem out there all the way around!

    1. It is nice that Chris is able to help, but let’s be fair. You only hear of problems here and on a daily basis, the carriers handle a lot of issues and handle them well.

  11. a few things here that don’t seem right:
    if this happened last year, the amounts of compensation required by the DOT are different than they are now. the 4x one-way fare is rather new.

    it sounds to me like the agent told them they were out of seats & needed volunteers, but no one was taking them up. the standard next question is if they want to volunteer themselves. of course, this is better for the airline, financially. volunteers can get travel vouchers in greater amounts, in some cases (it’s important to note that SWA’s vouchers have NO RESTRICTIONS. they have a dollar value and can be used for any flight, any time, even internet specials. it’s a code that you use like a debit card until it’s gone, or 1 yr from date of issue, not date of original purchase in this case). now, whether the OPs misunderstood or now have regrets, I don’t know. it just sounds to me like they might’ve taken a voluntary bump.

    the other more likely scenario I came up with (w/ help from Roomie) is that they showed up to the gate less than 10 min prior to their departure (SWA lets passengers show up much later than any other airline, and many people take that for granted.) they call this their “Ten Minute Rule” and reservations may be canceled for anyone who isn’t there at that point. in that case, if their seats were given away to either waiting standbys or to other confirmeds who were at the gate but didn’t get boarding passes yet (a by-product of overbooking…), then at that point, SWA can offer a refund if they so wish, or they can put the passenger standby on the next available flight — and it sounds like the next one showing any hope was 2 days later, so the OPs opted for the refund option to find a way home that day. this sounds like the most likely story. the OP just left that part out about not showing up on time.

    the refund checks that airport agents give out can be cashed at the SWA ticket counter for cold, hard bills, granted that the particular airport has the petty to cover it. I have no idea if RSW carries that much or not. so it’s possible they could’ve cashed the check right there and used the money to buy the new tickets.

    now, if they were indeed involuntarily bumped, their compensation is clearly wrong. the check was obviously wrong.
    however, SWA has an obligation to not only give them cash, but also must put them on the next available flight. in this case, the next available flight was 2 days later, and I have a feeling the OPs found that unreasonable and chose to find some other way back (not that I blame them). that sucks, but that was a choice they made—even if they felt they had no choice.

    aside from the disputed dollar amount, SWA did exactly what is prescribed by the DOT as far as options. we are not getting the whole story here. but taking a year to return the money to them, not cool at all. i’d be pounding down their doors, too.

    oh, and no Southwest agent would ever say “all seats had been assigned”. their very product is no assigned seats. maybe all boarding passes had been issued/assigned and accounted for, but never would they say something about assigned seats. i’d fall over if i ever heard one of them say that!

    1. Right – that’s why I think they wandered over after everyone had already boarded (seats all “assigned” then) and no seats were left.  When are folks going to learn?

      1. Passengers can can keep coming earlier and earlier, and you’re still going to blame passengers for not learning.

        If the airline sells ‘X’ more tickets to passengers who show up than they have seats on the plane, then ‘X’ passengers will get bumped.  Period.  Nobody how early everyone shows up.

        If the OP’s arrived at the airport 4 hours early, then (maybe) they wouldn’t have been the ones bumped.  And then you would be blaming some other passengers who arrived before them and now get bumped instead and receive the bad check instead of them….

        1.  i never defended overbooking. i even said i don’t like it at all.
          but these people are twisting the truth. they did not come to the gate with at least 10 minutes to go before departure. is that so much to ask? that you’re at your gate at least 10 minutes prior?

          1. I guess you think it’s acceptable practice to smear passengers based on your idle speculation.

            Passengers who in this case haven’t even complained about anything other than the fact that they received a bad check and couldn’t get that resolved within 1 year through normal channels.

            You complain that THEY are twisting the truth?  While you claim with false certainty that they didn’t arrive 10 minutes before the flight?  And while you claim with false certainty that they must have paid $693.60/roundtrip ticket (only way that the check could represent “just a refund”)? (And that the tickets were either paid for with cash or SW didn’t follow it’s normal refund policy?)

          2. Hey Michael, please relax.
            Everyone, including and especially me, is SPECULATING.

            It’s just an opinion. No one has the facts. Peace.

          3.  you really do need to relax. i said in my very 1st post that these were my theories, and what was likely possible.

          4. i don’t see any qualifications in your response to my post  (which had nothing to do with your 1st post btw)

  12. We don’t need more FEDERAL LAWS!  We need responsible, customer oriented business practices in every industry.  Mistakes do occur and should be promptly and fairly addressed, but please keep the FEDS out of it!

    1. That’s a nice sentiment, but what do you do when responsible, customer business practices fail.  Without laws with teeth the only alternatives are 1)give up and 2) litigate.  Both seem like poor alternatives to good consumer protection laws.

  13. We don’t need any more federal laws of any kind!  This was an error on SW’s part, they made a mistake correcting it.  It’s now corrected, perhaps not the right amount but that’s what Chris Elliot is for!  Americans have to start taking care of things for themselves, not looking to the federal government for help.  This is why Chris provides such a needed service; if you can’t get it done yourself, he is there to help.

        1. Thank you!  There is ALREADY a law in place, it was just not enforced, so why would one more, two more, etc laws be needed?  And who thinks that/those would then be enforced???

          1.  Funny, what’s the point of adding more rules. 99.99% of my customers don’t even know the rules today. If they try to read them, they would not understand or care (until there is a problem).

  14. I’m always amazed by the difference between how much time it takes for the company to get paid vs. how much time it takes for the consumer to get his or her refund. 

    I understand that businesses need audits and reviews of money going out to prevent abuse, so I’m willing to spot them a few days. Maybe we need a law that says that businesses need to refund your money in the same amount of time it time it takes them to get your money, plus 3 days for internal review and audit. 

    Sound fair?

      1. Cash yes, but a check?  What good will that do at the next carrier’s counter?  Not to mention the one initially written in the wrong amount and with errors.

        1. Here’s what the law (Title 14: Part 250 Oversales) actually says:

          Method of Payment

          The airline must give each passenger who qualifies for denied boarding compensation  a payment by cash or check for the amount
          specified above, on the day and place the involuntary denied boarding occurs. However, if the airline arranges alternate transportation for
          the passenger’s convenience that departs before the payment can be made, the payment will be sent to the passenger within 24 hours. The air
          carrier may offer free tickets in place of the cash payment. The passenger may, however, insist on the cash payment, or refuse all
          compensation and bring private legal action.

          CASH IS KING!

        2. Bodega, I also want to emphasize that the Denied Boarding Compensation (Overbooking) rule does not mean that if you are given compensation that your ticket is INVALIDATED. You are being compensated for being hassled. Your ticket might still be valid for a refund.

          1. Frankly my bank would have accepted the check since it would just read the DOLLAR NUMBERS. They are too busy and will not read the WORDS. Or, if he used an ATM, chances are it will be OK since all those checks go to a processing center that would also just encode the NUMBERS.

            The pax real complaint is waiting for his money for one year. I think he was able to stomach the bumping itself.

          2. Actually, legally, the bank is bound by the written amount not the amount in numbers. The written amount is the legal amount of the check. I wonder what bank was used because here at Wells Fargo, we would have accepted the check.

          3.  Hey good point. In the bank we used to process a lot of checks, I saw (and was told by) the outsourced ENCODING company that they only READ the numbers and keyed it in to print an extended MICR line and create a digital record for deposit. This thing happens so fast because the checks were on a mechanized belt.
            Nevertheless, since the difference of the written amount and the amount in numbers was small, the OP should have gotten his money much earlier than 1 year.

  15. I truly don’t understand why SWA dragged their feet on this one and I really don’t understand why SWA didn’t just get them on another airline w/o the OP and family having to shell out exhorbitant amounts of money to get home after being abandoned by SWA.

    These people were offered absolutely no viable alternatives.  Two days until the next flight?  Out of Florida?  It would have been cheaper for the OPs had SWA found them a flight out of another airport (assuming they fly out of anywhere else – not a huge SWA flyer) and paying for a night’s stay along with a rental car.

    This one, IMHO, is a perfect illustration of just how much the airlines DON’T care.  Sweet commercials and pithy newsletters can’t change the fact passengers are no longer people to them.

    1.  read my response above for how this could have happened, through no fault of SWA (at least the “bumping” part, not the incorrect check part).
      also, no airlines will accept a SWA ticket, and their contract does not call for them to put you on another airline. that’s what happens with many of these low-cost carriers. they are fiercely independent.

      and yes, 2 days til the next available seats to get out of FLORIDA during SPRING BREAK is totally normal. those flights are sold out months in advance.

      1. Okay, first of all, I didn’t say they should use their existing ticket on another airline but that SWA should have done more than, “Here ya go – it’s your problem now.”  

        As far as alternate flights – What about Atlanta, Mobile, Gulfport, New Orleans, Jackson, Orlando?  These are all cities that would require some driving but they would have been home the next day and it would have cost much, much less than what they paid for their full-fare walk up tickets.

        They were traveling in and out of a smaller airport during a peak season that surpasses all other peak seasons and the airline (as well as the PAX) should have had a contingency plan in place for just such an occasion.

        1. As long as they give back the amount of each ticket, that is all they have to do.  What is missing is when did they get to the airport for this flight?  Did they cut their time short and lost their boarding rights?

          1.  it’s a little funny that their whole complaint is based around the conflicting amounts written on the check… not about how or why they didn’t get on the plane and the correct compensation associated with IDB.

            in other words… they KNOW they were late to the flight, and they KNOW that SWA knows that. they just don’t want Chris nor us to know.

          2. I honestly don’t think that the reason they were bumped is at all relevant to this story, as the OP was just asking Chris to help him get the refund he was entitled to per SWA.  Nothing more.  You keep bringing it up as if they were trying to hide something, which doesn’t seem to be the case at all.

          3. it’s 100% relevant… because THEY WEREN’T “BUMPED”. that’s a very precise term, and one that i sincerely doubt applies here. they were just late and effectively missed the flight by not being there when all seats were released (10 minutes prior to departure).

            the OP was trying to throw in there that they were involuntarily denied boarding, to get sympathy from Chris and the other readers.  i’m sorry you disagree, but their story does not add up. they were not at the gate in time. the end.

            now, about the check, i fully agree that taking a year to get the correct amount was ridiculous.

        2. But again, during Spring Break, when all flights are sold, they may not have had another option TO offer them – and they cannot offer another airline as an option, as they have no agreements with them, so no way to pay for the client’s tickets for them.

        3. “I really don’t understand why SWA didn’t just get them on another airline”… i explained that low cost carriers (such as SWA) do not accommodate their passengers on other airlines. that’s all.

          and yes, you’re right… there were other options they could’ve explored.  maybe they did and they just left out that part. like they left out the part about showing up late for the flight 🙂

    2. Frankly, I suspect this was AirTran.
      It’s hard to believe this happened with the real Southwest Airlines.
      WN has FMY and MKE service via at least MCO, BWI, STL, HOU and maybe some other “hub”.
      AIrTran has a non-stop MKE-FMY v.v. so I suspect the OP took AirTran.
      Personally, I would take [original and genuine] Southwest routes at any time. I will be careful with the old AirTran routes.

      1. I thought the same thing you did, Tony, that this was AirTran.  I don’t know I wouldn’t have really hung things up (not maliciously but out a fierce desire to get home) at the counter having them check every possible route with layovers to get me home.  Alternatively, as I posted before, would have asked they look for another airport that might have less traffic or the ability to handle a lot of traffic.

        Heck, when I found out a flight I was on out of SFO was being delayed by hours due to weather at LAX, I was using the smartphone app to find alternative routes before I could get to the counter to check my bag.  My son and I ended up in BFE and it didn’t go as smoothly as it could have gone but it could have been worse.

        I believe this would have been less of a crisis for a much more seasoned traveler.

      2. If this was AirTran, then why did Chris say WN took care of it after contacting WN?  WN does fly this routing. 

        1. They, FL and WN, both fly the route RSW-MKE. I am not sure how much integration (in Ft Myers) has been achieved since Southwest bought AirTran. As for my comment, I am only speculating since it is FL with the nonstop alternative. I am also speculating the AirTran will issue Southwest Checks (money). Frankly, I am surprised this even happened since WN has quite a number of flights from RSW to their other hubs. So again, I speculated this was on FL since they had more limited options. But anyway, waiting for more than a year for compensation is bizarre.

      3. Tony, they clearly said this was last year, so definately a true WN flight, not AirTran.  And although I like Southwest, they can (and obviously do!) drop the ball occasionally.  Why the DOT didn’t respond to this is what is absolutely vile.  It is CLEARLY their job in this matter.

    3. AH – because this is a low cost versus a legacy carrier, and they do NOT have ticketing agreements with the other airlines, and are not REQUIRED to put you on another flight.  (One of the ways they keep costs down).  When people choose a low cost carrier, they need to consider what pains they can bear in a situation like this, or go another route, unfortunatley.

  16. Chris, what was the amount of the refund?  As others have mentioned, if this was an involuntary denied boarding, the compensation if not rebooked to arrive within 2 hours is *4* times the one-way fare.  In addition to that, you still have the ticket and have the right to an involuntary refund.  So they should receive 5 times the one way fare, in cash not vouchers (well, the fare refund could be to the purchase credit card).  Correct, travel experts?

    I’ve said it before — as soon as the bad check was rejected, a dispute should have been filed with the credit card company — in this case, that would only have covered part of what was owed (I’d dispute the entire round trip charge), but would have helped get resolution.

    1. As flutiefan said this ticket (or flight) may have been BEFORE the new regulations went into effect (last Aug 2011).

      If the old regulation (circa 2008) was in effect, then Southwest only owed them 200% of the value of their ticket but no more than $800.
      Since the value of their ticket is only 1/2 of the original (because they are being bumped only for the return flight), then the rightful compensation is (2x 1/2 = ) 100% of their original ticket price. If that is so, then the total amount $1387.20 (for 4 pax) is most probably correct (at that time).

      Had this happened on or after 23AUG 2011, the compensation amount doubles. This was the basis of my original comment and I could be wrong in my date assumptions.

      Nevertheless, since they received their compensation only recently, then they were not able to enjoy the right to compensation *upon bumping* in the first place. Having said that then they should enjoy the better of the compensation rules (old or new). Or else, SWA should have been made to pay whatever the OP paid the other carrier to get home and any credit card charges they paid extra. And, vouchers are meaningless because they spent CASH to get home.

      1. Think you have those dates correct, hon.  🙂  I think the problem here could have been avoided if they arrived to the gate EARLY – when travelling as a group, and during peak travel season, ALWAYS recommended.  Or here we go!

      2. That’s probably true about the dates and old compensation, but in that case it should be 3x 1/2, the 2x in compensation plus the refund of the ticket (as I understand from reading the regs, after compensation you retain the ticket, and as with any schedule change are entitled to elect to not fly and get a refund on a non-refundable ticket).  Am I wrong there?

        But either way getting the credit card company involved immediately would have been a good idea.

        1. The IDB compensation would be 2x one-way fare.
          The remaining value of the ticket is one-way fare (or ~1/2 of the original, full round-trip ticket).

          I think they bought the roundtrip ticket for $346.80 each. That’s why when they were bumped, SWA paid them 2x of the one-way fare which is exactly the same as the roundtrip fare as DENIED BOARDING COMPENSATION (cash or check).

          Their unused return trip ticket is still worth half of roundtrip fare or ~$173.40 each. But they are not going to get that in cash. They should get that as travel funds in their SWA accounts.

          So all in all they should get 1.5 times the cost of the roundtrip ticket or 3x the one-way fare (some in cash, the remaining in travel funds).

          I am not sure the credit card company will side with you. And even if it does, you can only recover the portion of the ticket you are owed. I don’t think the credit card company will bat for your denied boarding compensation.

          Personally, my heart always goes to the passengers who are bumped when they come to the airport on time. That point is being disputed by people in this board. I have no evidence they were late. Anyway, IMO even if you get 3x one way fare, you will have an extremely hard time making that pay for a walk-up fare (to get home). Hence this is why I believe it is fundamentally unfair to bump passengers because of airline overbooking.

          1. I respect the thought that the credit card company might not allow a full chargeback in the end (though they may still be a helpful tool in pushing the airline to do the right thing), but I really believe you have the right to a refund (cash or the original form of payment), not just a travel credit, if you choose not to take the rebooked flight (in addition to the 2x or 4x etc compensation).  The DOT’s website at says:

            “You always get to keep your original ticket and use it on
            another flight. If you choose to make your own arrangements, you can request an
            “involuntary refund” for the ticket for the flight you were bumped
            from. The denied boarding compensation is essentially a payment for your

            And Southwest’s CoC calls for a refund of an otherwise-nonrefundable ticket in an involuntary reschedule, as do virtually all airlines; same as any other schedule change that entitles you to get a refund.  And even if the CoC didn’t, basic consumer law would allow such a refund, and THAT part will almost certainly be upheld by a reputable credit card company.

  17. No, it does NOT take 3-5 months to process a refund unless the refunder wants it to take that long. I’ve never been so surprised as when I bought something from ano refund website, received a defective product, called on Friday to inquire what to do (send product back) and had a credit on my card that following Monday. ONE day. Guess where I go first to shop on- line? Yep, that website. A little common sense customer service engenders more loyalty than any frequent flyer program can buy!

  18. Statistics Worth Checking Out

    Go here     and take a look at Southwest Airline’s “bumping” statistics. It surprised me! I didn’t know they are one of the worst (if not the worst).

    I have a feeling it has something to do with Southwest’s lenient policy on unused tickets. I think you can simply “bank” them without penalties. This has the effect of making non-refundable tickets very usable even if you change your mind. Also, Southwest does not charge a change penalty so people are more inclined to make changes. I suspect Southwest has to counteract this will more OVERBOOKINGS.

    In a “classic” airline you may lose your entire fare if you cancel or don’t show up. A change in dates would cost at least $150. This has a tendency to make passengers STICK to their original plans. So classic airlines really only have to be watchful of fully refundable tickets – those that do not have change or refund penalties. If these people don’t fly but make a reservation, their seats would fly empty with no revenue. So, if these airlines overbook, it will likely be in this Y or near-Y fare bookings. [There is no point to oversell a cheap fare in a lower booking class.]

    But for Southwest, all types of fares (all booking classes) have a propensity to change or not show up since they can all bank unused tickets (without penalty). This may force Southwest to lower the bar (or threshold) for overbooking if they want to guarantee a high passenger load factor. In other words, Southwest may have to overbook more than other airlines. The problem is what happens when all the passengers actually show up.

    Unlike classic airlines, Southwest won’t endorse you to another carrier. So you either wait for the next available WN flight or you take the denied boarding compensation and buy a walk-up fare from some other airline. Since most Southwest fares are cheap, then 4x the WN (one-way) fare you are holding (maybe the cheapest web only fare) may not be enough to get you home.

    Well that’s the price we pay for super flexible policies. At least now I know my risks. I think.

    1.  you hit the nail on the head. they are so lenient (too lenient, i think) with missed flights and changes and such that they have to counteract with overbooking.  i hate overbooking. at my airline, doing the “who wants to volunteer?!” dance is excruciating. i had to invol DB a young girl the other day to the tune of a $1300 check, just because the people who’d originally volunteered changed their minds at the last possible second. i shouldn’t have to do that at all.

      1. I used to volunteer when I was offered decent compensation. These days it’s $200 in United Funny Money which is always subject to blackout dates. 🙁

  19. then why did they throw that part in there? _Flutiefan


    Oh I don’t know, perhaps to provide context for the story?  If the story was, “I got a check from SW that was written incorrectly, everyone would wonder, why did you get this check, what was it for, etc.

    I find that people ask for sympathy only when their complaint is weak. But with regards to the cold hard facts of the OPs complaint, they are spot on. They don’t need sympathy, they need their money.

  20. @Michael_K:disqus
    If we can gloss over the terminology used by the OP (i.e. refund) and simply concentrate on the story; we can glean some remarkable resemblance or fit to Southwest’s COCs.

    SWA is proud to have a 10-minute rule. IMO the OP complied with the 10-min rule. Since he did comply with the 10-minule rule and he was bumped, therefore he was entitled to the Denied Boarding Compensation.

    SWA COC further states that IDB compensation will be in form of a draft (check). So that is exactly what happened.

    I wish to add that the check is supposed to be good the day it was written. The error on the SWA agent is an error of the company. The delay in righting the error was inexcusable. It violated the (spirit of the) law. The intention of the Overbooking law (14 CFR Part 250 Oversales) is to provide the victim with money so he can buy an alternative way (home).

    People are getting confused about several issues:

    (1) the OP’s use of the term refund. IMO lay people (those who do not work for the airline industry or participate in airline forums) will use a common word like refund to mean money they receive from the carrier. How many travelers will use the phrase Denied Boarding Compensation? That said, a real REFUND makes no sense since SWA’s own policy (Section 4C of COC) states the refunds will be returned as either travel credits or to the original form of payment (i.e. credit card). Therefore, one can conclude that the check issued at the airport could only be a Denied Boarding Compensation.

    (2) LATENESS. According to SWA, the pax is only late if they violate the 10 minute rule. Since the OP was paid IDB compensation it proves he was not late. Had he been late, he was not entitled to a check on the spot.

    What other people may be referring to is the probability of getting bumped. Some even go as far as BLAMING the pax for not checking in early to improve his chance of not getting bumped.

    This is where I respectfully disagree. I believe that the existence and promotion of the SWA 10 minute rule gives the pax a false sense of security (of thinking he won’t get bumped).

    Ten-Minute Rule. Failure of a Passenger to obtain a Boarding Pass and be present, available, and appropriate as described in Section 6 for boarding in the flight’s boarding gate area at least ten minutes before the scheduled departure time may result in cancellation of the Passenger‟s reservation without notice at the Carrier’s sole discretion.

    In reality the aircraft is already being boarded (and the boarding groups well determined and populated) ahead of this time. Please note that if one checks in online as early as 24 hours before the flight, he can print the boarding pass with the BOARDING GROUP already assigned. In fact, if you pay $10 for  Early-Bird Check in, SWA will AUTOMATICALLY check you in 36 hours ahead of departure so you will get assigned a boarding position ahead of those who did not pay this fee. If you are an A-list customer of SWA, you will be in Priority GROUP A boarding and will get Fly-By Service (no or less waiting in line).

    SWA will bump passengers by his boarding position. So the earlier one gets a boarding position ahead of others, the better his chances of getting on the flight. That seems to me like SWA passengers are participating on a TV series called the Amazing Race each time they try to board.

    Carrier‟s boarding priority is established on a firstcome, first-served basis in the order boarding positions are secured. In determining which passengers holding confirmed reserved space shall be denied boarding
    involuntarily, Carrier shall deny boarding in reverse order from the order in which the Passengers‟ boarding positions were secured (i.e., the last Passenger who receives a boarding position will be the first Passenger denied boarding involuntarily in an oversale situation), with no preference given to any particular person or category of fares.

    The real issue and problem is OVERBOOKING. By the airline’s selling more tickets (confirmed space) that there are actual seats on the aircraft, the airline is gambling (speculating) that there will be enough PAID passengers who will NOT show up and therefore all the passengers who do actually show up will have seats.

    It is the airline that speculated, not the passenger. So how can that get twisted to blame the passenger for not being there early enough as to guarantee him a seat? The fact is if the flight is oversold, I don’t care how early everyone shows up, some of them will get bumped. It is a simple math problem.

    1. Tony, Thanks for fleshing out what I was getting at in such thorough detail.

      I suppose skeptics can still try to argue either that SWA sometimes ignores its refund policy and issues checks when it should be crediting plastic, or that the OP received a check because he paid in cash (how many people really spend ~$2,000+ on airplane tickets and pay in cash though?)

      I find it incredible that someone would assert that either of these possibilities is the “most likely” one here.

      1. Even if you actually buy a SWA ticket with CASH, the refund policy is (per SWA COC 4.C.2):

        Carrier shall make eligible refunds in the same form as the original payment. Refunds for Tickets purchased with a credit card shall be processed for crediting to the same credit card account no later than seven business days from the date the refund request is received by Carrier. Refunds for Tickets purchased with cash will be issued by check no later than 20 business days after the refund request is received by Carrier.

        It clearly states that you won’t get CASH back as a refund even if you bought your ticket with CASH. You will get a check.

        1. Right, that’s exactly what I meant.  A skeptic could argue that the bad check the OP’s received was in fact a refund for their cash ticket purchase. 

          I’m curious how many passengers pay in cash for ~$2,000+ in plane tickets?  More than 0.01%?

          1. I am a skeptic, a devout one 🙂
            Since the OP was not disputing the amount of the payment then the reason for the payment is irrelevant. What is in dispute is the AVAILABILITY of the funds – whether the check was negotiable or not.

            The debate whether the OP was late or was bumped is only an interesting side story. Either way SWA will pay you something.
            Even if the OP was late and was responsible for being bumped, he  was handed a check and that check better be good. That check is indisputable.

  21. AAmerican1

    I skimmed the statute.  It seemed drawn specifically towards rebates, which of course is not the issue before us.  Obviously I can’t speak to all states,  but I am very skeptical that  this is something that an Attorney General or District Attorney would get involved in.  With regards to checks, law enforcement is generally focused on fraud. Otherwise they view it as a civil matter.

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