Stranded by Southwest and Stuck With Unexpected Costs

Stranded by Southwest and Stuck With Unexpected Costs

Olivia Laskowski says she ended up buying a new plane ticket for herself and her cat Pretzel after Southwest canceled her flight. (Desiree Rios/The New York Times)

Olivia Laskowski was in Nashville, Tennessee, waiting to fly home to New York on Dec. 27 when she received a text message from Southwest Airlines the night before that her flight had been canceled. Four days and more than $600 later, Laskowski and her Siamese cat, Pretzel, finally returned home to Brooklyn.

The text message from Southwest contained a link where she could view her other travel options. But when Laskowski, 25, tried to book again with Southwest, the next available flight wasn’t until Jan. 11. She ended up buying a new plane ticket for $478 (including $125 for Pretzels and $80 for bags) through JetBlue that took her home Dec. 30. Southwest has told Laskowski that she will be refunded for her original ticket, and she plans to submit her JetBlue receipt for a refund as well. So far, Southwest has offered her 25,000 points for her trouble.

“Sometimes you get extra expenses in life and you just brush them off and they are what they are,” said Laskowski, who works as marketing manager for Partners Coffee. “But it’s the kind of money I’d really like to give back, because as a young person living in probably the most expensive city in the country, $600 makes a big difference to me.”

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Southwest Airlines canceled thousands of flights in December after bad weather interfered with holiday travel plans for thousands of fliers. But while other major airlines quickly recovered, inadequate computer systems at Southwest stranded many of its customers for days. Others rented cars to complete their journeys. Travelers also incurred debt from having to pay for unplanned meals, hotel rooms and tickets on other airlines. While the Southwest chaos has cleared up, many travelers are still dealing with the financial consequences of having to make alternate plans to get home.

Southwest is offering customers refunds and refunds for flights from Dec. 24 to Jan. 2 that were canceled or delayed more than three hours, in addition to 25,000 points per ticket, Chris Perry, a company spokesman, wrote in an email to The New. York Times. Points are worth about $300 in flight credits.

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Airlines are required to provide a refund to customers whose flights are canceled or changed in a “significant” way, according to the US Department of Transportation’s website. The page, detailing the airlines’ main obligations to travelers, says Southwest is required to offer vouchers when a cancellation forces customers to wait three or more hours for a new flight, free hotel accommodations for those affected by a cancellation during night and free transportation to and from a hotel.

But for Dan Hughes, 53, who was traveling home to Oregon after spending his 26th wedding anniversary in Nashville on Dec. 21, a refund might not be possible because his travel plans fell outside the refund dates .

“I got stuck in Denver on the 21st,” Hughes said. “At this point, you’re saying, ‘No, you’re only on it until the 24th.'”

Hughes and his wife, who own a small pizza franchise, were scheduled to fly from Nashville to Denver and then connect to Portland, Oregon. But their flight from Nashville was stuck on the tarmac in Denver for nearly two hours, Hughes said, and then he got a notification that their flight home had been canceled. He booked a flight and then another on Southwest that were delayed and then canceled.

Finally, Hughes booked a trip on United Airlines to Las Vegas, which would then connect to Seattle. But he and his wife were stuck in Las Vegas. The couple eventually hopped on a Southwest flight to Sacramento, Calif., and then drove home to Oregon. They spent about $1,700 on the ordeal and have yet to return their trunk with Hughes’ breathing machine for his sleep apnea. (Southwest contacted Hughes on January 5 and told him his luggage was found in Nashville.)

In addition, Hughes said, he and his wife incurred expenses at their restaurant because they had to pay employees to do their jobs when they couldn’t be there.

“I only do what my business does, so it turned out to be more of a financial hit than we anticipated, not including the additional expenses,” he said.

Suzanne Durham, 56, had to use her bonus to pay the extra costs of her journey being disrupted. When her flight from Boston to Nashville on Dec. 26 was canceled, she booked a new flight on Southwest for the following Thursday and was able to reschedule it for Tuesday. Still, she said, she worried it would get canceled (which it eventually did) and bought an American Airlines flight using nearly $1,000 in redeemed points.

She ended up spending about $1,100 to $1,200 and was reimbursed $183 for her return trip to Southwest. She also received the 25,000 points offered by Southwest.

“I’m going to put my gym membership on hold for a few months,” said Durham, who does promotion and marketing for a record company. “I don’t like having any debt.”

JR Jones, 29, planned to travel southwest from Sacramento to Seattle with his fiancee to see her family on Dec. 22, but their flight was delayed and then canceled. Southwest rescheduled their flight for Christmas Day, so the couple ended up renting a car for the 13-hour drive to Seattle. They hoped to fly again to avoid the long journey a second time.

Then their return flight on Dec. 28 was also canceled and they had to get another rental car to get back to Sacramento. The cost of the extra trip rose to about $1,000. For the canceled flights, the couple has so far only received flight credits from Southwest in addition to the 25,000 points. While Jones’ fiancee’s family was able to loan the couple about $500, they are hoping for a refund to pay it back.

“The rest will come out of our wedding fund and hopefully we can get it back before the actual wedding,” said Jones, who works for an environmental engineering firm. “Otherwise, we’ll end up putting a little extra stuff on credit cards or something until we can recoup those costs.”

Michael Baxter, 47, was planning to take a trip with his family to San Diego for Christmas. His 15-year-old daughter wanted to visit Legoland with her best friend and the trip was her gift. But when Baxter’s flight from Tulsa, Oklahoma, was moved to Dec. 29 from Dec. 25, he opted to borrow his sister’s Subaru and drive so his family could take the vacation as planned.

While Southwest offered to hold him and his family for the second leg of their flight, they couldn’t abandon their car. They have been reimbursed for the full cost of their flight. However, the family spent over $500 on gas and had to book a hotel room on the way back, which cost about $400. The family lost $430 from losing the first night at a resort due to the long drive, as well as $130 for a rental car that was no longer needed.

Baxter and his wife are medical professionals and said the costs would not have a major impact on their finances, but that the ordeal had taken a toll.

“It still hurts,” Baxter said. “My wife and I lost two vacation days.”

Baxter’s wife emailed Southwest explaining their situation and was told they would not be reimbursed for the additional costs. But now that the couple has calculated the full cost of the inconvenience, they are planning to contact Southwest again.

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