Southwest Airlines fined record $140 million by DOT over 2022 holiday travel meltdown


(WASHINGTON) — Southwest Airlines has been handed a record $140 million fine for its operational meltdown during the 2022 holiday travel season, the U.S. Department of Transportation said Monday.

The civil penalty leveled against the airline is about 30 times larger than any previous fine against an airline, DOT officials said in a press release.

The DOT said it will also require Southwest to start issuing a $75 flight credit to any passenger whose arrival is delayed more than 3 hours when it’s the airline’s fault, including mechanical issues.

“Today’s action sets a new precedent and sends a clear message: if airlines fail their passengers, we will use the full extent of our authority to hold them accountable,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement.

The $140 million fine adds to the about $600 million in refunds and reimbursements that had previously been agreed to over the meltdown, the DOT said. Officials said they will use the majority of the fine to compensate customers affected by future Southwest flight cancellations and other delays.

As a massive winter storm battered the United States during the 2022 holiday season, the airline cancelled more than 16,900 flights, stranding more than 2 million passengers, the DOT said.

Southwest said it had “learned from the event” and made new investments to improve customer service and “our resiliency.”

“We’re pleased to have reached this consumer-friendly settlement, which includes a new, industry-leading policy to compensate Customers during significant delays and cancellations,” the airline said in a press release.

Transportation officials said their investigation of the dayslong incident included “examining tens of thousands of pages documents, conducting several multi-day, in- person audits and site visits at Southwest’s headquarters, reviewing thousands of consumer complaints, and consulting with various third parties, such as airports.”

That investigation found that the airline had violated consumer protection laws on providing customer service, prompt flight-status notifications and prompt refunds, DOT officials said Monday.

DOT officials said they ordered Southwest to reserve $90 million in vouchers to cover the $75 flight credits the airline will be required to pay when flights are more than 3 hours late.

“Taking care of passengers is not just the right thing to do — it’s required, and this penalty should put all airlines on notice to take every step possible to ensure that a meltdown like this never happens again,” Buttigieg said in a statement.

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