Here’s why threatening Southwest Airlines with legal action won’t solve your problem

Threatening Southwest Airlines with legal action won't solve your problem

When Southwest Airlines cancels Cameron Rostron’s flight, it can’t be rescheduled for several days. So when she asks to be rerouted she assumes this will be a complimentary change. But it isn’t.  Now she wants to know why the airline has ignored all of her requests for a refund. 


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.

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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.


When I read your complaint and noted that Southwest was involved, I was sure that this could easily be resolved. Our advocacy team knows Southwest to be quite consumer-friendly. So I wondered why the airline had ignored your complaint.

Then I read your emails to Southwest Airlines.

A self-advocacy mistake

In your emails to me, you were polite and cordial. But in your emails to Southwest Airlines, 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. He teaches people how to bring this kind of case. 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 didn’t think that was necessary.

Your case underscores the importance of beginning any attempt at a resolution in an amicable manner. Start on the ground floor and assume the company will help.

Most problems that we see can be resolved without any legal intervention. And making threats of a potential lawsuit or copying the legal department, always backfires for the consumer. And that’s true even if you are a lawyer.

Why? Because most companies have the same standard protocol concerning letters containing legal threats. Those types of complaints are sent to the legal department to await the consumer’s next legal move. In other words, by writing such a letter you escalate your case beyond where any regular employee can help.

A Southwest Airlines customer service mistake

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. This problem should have been quickly fixed.

Someone at Southwest made a not-so-customer-friendly decision — a mistake — in handling your case. Southwest shouldn’t have charged you $557 to send you home to an alternative airport. This change 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. You also did not follow our tips for writing an effective self-advocacy letter.

Threatening Southwest Airlines with legal action

Your 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 again that threats of legal action have the exact opposite effect that the consumer is hoping for in these situations.

The good news

I contacted Southwest on your behalf. The airline quickly resolved your problem. 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 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’s known for friendly customer service — no big guns needed here.

25 thoughts on “Here’s why threatening Southwest Airlines with legal action won’t solve your problem

    1. especially U.S. lawyers. Unfortunately the “disease” of contingency fees, is spreading around the world. Now anyone can become a lawyer (law schools are popping up everywhere & it’s very easy to get into one) & demand amounts, not too big, when companies know it’s not worth fighting. Would rather trust a used car salesman.
      New Zealand apparently has very low capped amounts that can be claimed. Think they also have very few lawyers(no use sueing anyone there apparently). It would be interesting to find out more about the NZ situation, from someone who knows more accurate info.

  1. Frankly, I’m surprised that the advocacy efforts of the site worked; with overt legal threats of class-action litigation, this is the precise sort of case that legal departments of the world tell customer-service departments not to touch with a 39 1/2 foot pole! Certainly informing Southwest that they will pursue the case to the bitter end just to prove a point were the exact opposite of a good idea.

    And what kind of lawyers are these? It’s plain that airline CoC’s have their butts well-covered here. Under the letter of the contract, you are owed a seat on the next available flight from where you are to the original destination, nothing more. If this were not the case, these particular parts of airline contracts would have been voided many decades ago.

    Yes, Southwest made a mistake here (they’ve certainly re-routed me for free before from an alternate origin with no fuss), but going full-blown lawsuit here was both foolish and unnecessary.

    This pair is a shining example of why too many people don’t like lawyers.

    1. Well, first I gotta give you props for the Grinch reference. 😉

      Second – Ditto to it all.

      I’m glad they got their refund as it was the right outcome on the face of it, but HOLY SHIZZ that was a lot of unnecessary sturm und drang! Haven’t they heard of asking nicely first?

  2. One would think that two lawyers (one with a YLS degree, to boot) would actually look at the CoC, and realize that they didn’t have a leg to stand on. Cancelled flight means next available flight or a refund. Changing origin airports without a charge isn’t something Southwest is required to do. It makes SENSE for them to do it, and it’s good customer service for them to do it, but it’s not something they’re obligated to do.

  3. While I know the motto of many commentators here is “The consumer is always wrong,” I think this is more a case for Southwest suffering from the general reputation of airlines in this country. Which do you think is more likely? The average consumer knowing Southwest’s “good customer service reputation” or the average consumer knowing the generally awful reputation of US airlines?

    1. No matter if the business is a paragon of customer service or a Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy, lawsuit threats are always the LAST resort. (And you don’t make a threat, you just file a lawsuit.) No matter if the business is naughty or nice, competent legal departments tell customer service departments that any complaints that mention lawsuits go directly to the legal department, which promptly throws most of them in the trash without a response.

  4. I thought as soon as lawsuits were mentioned you’d stop advocating? Why did you continue? You’ve stopped before as soon as they threatened lawsuits

  5. “Ladies and Gentlemen,
    I am writing to give you notice of a legal issue that has arisen.”

    No No No No

    This is a customer service issue.

    The OP accepted the charges when she took the rebook. While the charges should be refunded, it is not a legal issue. Southwest followed its policy and did offer guidance of the higher cost. Only after receiving the service the OP paid for, she wants to get money back. Now, I am on the customer’s side here that Southwest should not have charged extra given the flight was cancelled by Southwest, but everyone needs to approach each other with respect and spirit of finding a solution, not empty threats. Good on you guys for advocating this, not sure I would have been so nice….

    1. Context is everything.

      The character (Dick the Butcher) who wants to “kill all the lawyers” wants to do so as a first step in destroying law and order so he could seize power.

      Understood in that context, the quote actually lauds lawyers for being bulwarks of a civilized society.

  6. “Good Golly Miss Molly!” Threats? I have never seen Southwest balk at assisting people. “We arrived very late, so allow us to get you a hotel”. They have changed names in an emergency. This is not the Southwest that I use and know. It takes a little time and a couple of weary smiles, but they are easy to work with.
    Now comes the question. Cameron, with all of this legal knowledge base, why did you pay the additional fee up front? Southwest does not retain your credit card, so you had to agree to pay this difference some where along the line. You needed to establish all of this with a Southwest supervisor on the 1st phone call.

  7. I dealt with Southwest last night, and they were awesome. I was supposed to fly to New Orleans on Friday. Because of the havoc wrought by Hurricane Harvey, they were offering to move bookings up to 14 days later. Technically, I should have done this some time on Tuesday but I didn’t get a chance to do it until the wee hours of Wednesday morning. (I am a claims analyst for a major property insurance company; it’s been a fun few days at work.) On their website it looked like I had missed the boat, but I thought I couldn’t lose anything by calling and asking. The rep got me on the flights I wanted for no charge. When she realized that my Early Bird wasn’t moving to the new reservation because I missed the window, she refunded that Early Bird and recharged me so I wouldn’t be out any money.

  8. I obviously have gotten the wrong Southwest agents in the past. They cancelled a flight from Philadelpha to Atlanta two years ago. I saw on line that the later flight had seats. I called to get on that one and SW told me I would have to pay the increased fare to get on it even though they had cancelled the flight. I paid as I wanted to get home and contacted Southwest when I returned about a refund. No love from them and still out the $50.00 additional. And the same thing happened last year on the same route—PHL to ATL. Cancelled flight and had to pay additional to get on the next flight as my fare class was not available for 2 days. Did not even bother trying to get the money back. And Southwest no longer gets my business.

    1. interesting to see this, as this site so often extols SW as the airline of choice and extremely consumer friendly, I guess it must be that you have to be the “right” consumer…

  9. I would expect even an attorney to have better judgment than that. The must be letting just about anyone into Yale these days.

  10. People who tout their own self-importance really raise my hackles. And, in my opinion, no respectable lawyer would send a letter like that as a first outreach. So you know what I think of her. A simple, polite request would have gotten her the desired outcome immediately from Southwest. It’s nonsense like this that causes companies to rethink policies–and not for the better.

  11. I’m a lawyer, and in 50+ years I’ve never used the “lawyer card”. And I almost always get what I ask for. I really dislike it when lawyers are so full of themselves that they scream “lawyer” on all of their communication. It’s embarrasing and self-defeating.

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