Many of you have already heard that in its contract of carriage, Southwest has now decided that mechanical issues are outside the airline’s control. How do I know? Because I’ve received more email from readers on this issue than any other, I believe. It’s amazing how this has grabbed people’s attention. The reality of this, however, is not as dire as many are suggesting. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t like this move, but due to Southwest’s policies, this doesn’t change much.
Who cares if Southwest considers a mechanical problem under its control or not, right? You should, actually. Airlines make clear distinctions on how much they’ll help stranded customers depending upon whether it was due to circumstances within the airline’s control or not. Here’s a handy chart explaining what’s within airline control and what isn’t, traditionally.
|Within Airline Control||Outside Airline Control (force majeure)|
|Drunk pilot||Alien invasion|
|Crew scheduling problems||War|
|Blind bag cart driver crashing into plane||Sea kitten attack|
|Don’t feel like flying today||Strikes|
|Can’t afford to pay fuel bill||Airport power outage|
|Can’t find second engine||Air traffic control delays|
It’s relatively straight forward. If it’s something that an airline can have control over, then it’s the airline’s responsibility. But what’s the difference for passengers? If something is within an airline’s control, then the airline will generally pay for hotels and meals while you’re waiting. The airline will also, in many cases, put you on another airline if available. If the event is outside an airline’s control, then you’re on your own. The airline will get you out when it has a seat available on its own flights, but that’s about it. You’re entitled to a full refund in both cases, assuming there’s a cancellation or excessive delay.
So why do I say that this isn’t as big of a deal here for Southwest? Southwest doesn’t put people on other airlines anyway. If you have a problem on Southwest, you’re waiting for the next seat on a Southwest flight or you’re taking your refund elsewhere. So it’s really just an issue of meals and hotels, not nearly as big of a deal but still important.
For all airlines, the contract of carriage is the binding document regarding air transportation, so this move in Southwest’s contract of carriage (PDF) is worrying, but Southwest also has its Customer Service Commitment (PDF) which outlines what it will do when things go wrong.
The Customer Service Commitment clearly states:
. . . if circumstances within our control, such as aircraft “swaps,” cause you to miss the last possible flight (or connection) of the day to your destination,
our Customer Service personnel have the authority to arrange for overnight lodging. We will find a hotel or motel as near to the airport as possible, and at no additional cost to you. We may also arrange for ground transportation to the overnight facility.
If the cause of your inconvenience is not within our means of control, we will do our best to assist you by securing a discounted rate at a hotel or motel at or near the airport.
With the underlying definition of “circumstances within our control” being clarified, it does make me wary. If a flight cancels because a plane breaks and there are no more flights that day, Southwest is now clearly not obligated to put you in a hotel for the night. Whether that holds up in practice or not remains to be seen, but it’s certainly a concern.
Southwest says that it simply clarified the definition of this in its contract of carriage but that it didn’t intend to change policies. That may be true, but from a legal perspective, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
[Updated on 7/28 @ 1234p: Southwest has listened to everyone and further clarified its contract of carriage to say mechanical difficulties from other entities. Smart move. Read the post on the Southwest blog at http://www.blogsouthwest.com/blog/southwest-airlines-addresses-misinterpretation-regarding-contract-carriage]