Southwest Airlines Hit With $140 Million Fine for 2022 Holiday Meltdown That Stranded Millions

By Jace Dela Cruz

Dec 19, 2023 03:29 AM EST

The US Department of Transportation (DOT) has imposed a $140 million civil penalty against Southwest Airlines for numerous violations of consumer protection laws during the December 2022 holiday meltdown. 

This incident saw the cancellation of 16,900 flights, leaving over two million passengers stranded, which led to an investigation by the DOT.

Air Traffic Controller Training To Be Halted If Government Shuts Down
(Photo : Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
BURBANK, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 25: A Southwest Airlines take off past the control tower at Burbank Hollywood Airport on September 25, 2023 in Burbank, California

Fine of Southwest Airlines Is 30 Times Larger 

According to BBC, the penalty, which is 30 times larger than any previous fine imposed against an airline in US history, aims to hold Southwest Airlines accountable for its failures and compensate affected passengers. 

In a statement on Monday, the DOT said the majority of the penalty will go towards compensating future Southwest passengers affected by cancellations or significant delays caused by the airline, while $35 million will be paid to the government.

As part of the compensation fund, the DOT has required Southwest to issue passengers a $75 flight credit voucher if their arrival is delayed three hours or more for reasons within Southwest's control.

The $140 million fine is reportedly in addition to the over $600 million in refunds and reimbursements that the department already ensured Southwest provided to passengers who faced travel disruptions during the operational meltdown in 2022. 

READ ALSO: US Treasury Department Unveils New Tax Credit Guidelines for Sustainable Aviation Fuel

Southwest Airlines' Reported Violations

The DOT's inquiry uncovered multiple instances of Southwest Airlines violating consumer protection laws, which include insufficient customer service support, failure to promptly notify passengers of their flight statuses, and delays in issuing refunds. 

Southwest's call center struggled to handle the disruptions, resulting in passengers encountering busy signals, prolonged wait times, or dropped calls when seeking assistance. 

Based on the DOT's investigation, Southwest's process for notifying passengers broke down, leading to the airline's failure to provide prompt notification of flight cancellations and delays.

Under federal law, the DOT noted that unrealistic scheduling is considered an unfair and deceptive practice, and "today's penalty will deter airlines from engaging in any unfair and deceptive practices against consumers."

The DOT also said it is closing its investigation without reaching a firm conclusion since its goal was to obtain quick relief for the public. In total, the department noted that Southwest will pay over $750 million for last year's mass cancellations.

"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," said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in the statement. 

"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," he added.

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