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Are airlines required to provide refunds, hotel rooms when flights are canceled?

Winter Weather Travel
Posted at 10:15 AM, Dec 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-29 08:11:09-05

Travelers at airports across the United States have been reporting many flight cancelations on Southwest Airlines.

According to FlightAware, 71% percent of Southwest Airlines flights were canceled on Monday. As of late Tuesday morning, 63% of the airlines’ flights were canceled for the day. It has already canceled 61% of its flights for Wednesday.

By comparison, Delta canceled 6% of its flights on Monday, and United canceled 5%, according to FlightAware.

The result has left thousands of flyers with few options to visit family or return home.

According to federal guidelines, there is some recourse for passengers.

The Department of Transportation says that passengers that opt to cancel their trip due to a flight cancellation are entitled to a refund even for non-refundable tickets. The government says travelers are also entitled to a refund for bag fees and any extras such as a seat assignment.

Airlines also are not required to put passengers on another airline’s flight, but it might be an option. Airlines may also propose vouchers in lieu of a refund. The Department of Transportation encourages passengers to inquire about blackouts, restrictions and other stipulations before accepting.

Whether airlines are required to pay for expenses incurred due to travel disruptions, such as hotel rooms and meals, the Department of Transportation said the answer is no. However, if the delay or cancellation is the airline’s fault, most airlines will offer to pay for expenses, such as meals and hotel rooms, according to a federal government dashboard. 

While extreme cold and a blizzard triggered cancelations late last week, some experts say other issues are at play.

"The storm that hit last week was the catalyst to this, but what went wrong is that our IT infrastructure for our scheduling software is vastly outdated. It can't handle the number of pilots, flight attendants that we have in the system with our complex route network,” Capt Michael Santoro, vice president of Southwest Airlines Pilot Association, told CNN.

"Our software can't keep track of it. So they don't know where we are, they don't know where airplanes are, and it's frustrating for the pilots, the flight attendants, and especially for or passengers,” he added.

Southwest Airlines apologized for the disruptions but said the weather is what caused the disruptions.

“We were fully staffed and prepared for the approaching holiday weekend when the severe weather swept across the continent, where Southwest is the largest carrier in 23 of the top 25 travel markets in the U.S. These operational conditions forced daily changes to our flight schedule at a volume and magnitude that still has the tools our teams use to recover the airline operating at capacity,” the airline said in a statement on Monday.

The Department of Transportation said it is investigating whether Southwest Airlines could have done more to prevent the disruptions. Whether that means passengers would be eligible for additional compensation remains to be seen.

Full guidance on delays and cancellations is available on the Department of Transportation website.