On Monday, the U.S. government issued a $140 million fine to Southwest Airlines for operational failures that resulted in nearly 17,000 canceled flights and stranded more than 2 million passengers during 2022’s Christmas and New Year’s travel season.
“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 Pete Buttigieg, the secretary of the Department of Transportation, in a statement. He added that the civil penalty “should put all airlines on notice to take every step possible to ensure that a meltdown like this never happens again.”
The penalty follows an investigation by the Transportation Department into the 2022 incident, which experts say was caused by a combination of winter weather, outdated technology, and a lack of preparation. Investigators say Southwest failed to provide adequate customer assistance, flight status notifications, and refunds in a timely and proper manner.
Additionally, the government issued a consent order, requiring Southwest to establish a $90 million compensation system for passengers affected by significant delays and cancellations in the future as well as refunding or reimbursing nearly $600 million to passengers affected by the incident and paying the $140 million fine.
In response, Bob Jordan, Southwest’s chief executive, boasted about the airline’s dedication to customer service and efforts to address the failures last holiday season. “We have spent the past year acutely focused on efforts to enhance the Customer Experience with significant investments and initiatives that accelerate operational resiliency, enhance cross-team collaboration, and bolster overall preparedness for winter operations,” he said.
According to Southwest’s press release, the company listed improvements that mirrored the details listed in the consent order but also introduced a new “industry-leading policy” to compensate customers who are delayed more than three hours due to a controllable issue.