Southwest Says Mechanical Issues Are Beyond Its Control, But It’s Not as Bad as You Might Think

Delays/Cancellations, Southwest

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


Blind bag cart driver crashing into plane

Sea kitten attack

Don’t feel like flying today


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.

Southwest Mechanical Force Majeure

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]

[Original photo via Flicker user swanksalot]

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24 comments on “Southwest Says Mechanical Issues Are Beyond Its Control, But It’s Not as Bad as You Might Think

  1. How come Strikes are outside the airlines control? Ie, if the BA cabin crew goes on strike – that happens due to bad management at the BA top. In my view that falls under the “Within airline control” section.

    1. Couldn’t disagree more. Union action is not always directly related to poor managment. If you don’t like the working conditions and pay, go somewhere else. As soon as enough workers do that the company will be forced to improve working conditions or raise pay to make it acceptable. Union action is hardly controlable by the company. I guess if the company fired all workers involved in an “action” then it might be under their control, but that is it.

      1. Easy said than done, left seater, when your work and hence your personal life are ruled by seniority. ALPA formed in the Thirties in response to management pushing pilots harder and harder. Management can adversarial labor relations (see BA, UA, AA, NW) or it can cultivate constructive ones (SW, CO under Bethune). That’s management’s choice. And that doesn’t necessarily mean giving the store away to labor. It can choose to build trust and goodwill like AA has reluctantly attempted once or twice since 9/11 only to hang themselves by their petard. So to a large degree, management has responsibility, and hence control over, for allowing conditions to deteriorate to strike actions.

        1. Again I will disagree wyodog. I have the ultimate choice as the employee. If I don’t like the working conditions or the pay to put up with such conditions I can walk across the street and get a new job. If I can’t get a new job then my skills or personality are somehow lacking.
          Without this getting to a pros/cons of unions they are more often to blame. I have twice turned down joining a union at jobs because of the handcuffs they place on their members.
          Union action is beyond the companies control.

  2. This was a bit of an eyebrow-raiser for me. At one point in my career, I actually worked in the Customer Care Department of ASA. Mechanicals were a no brainer: they are within the carrier’s control, so compensate appropriately. Weather and ATC are not, so don’t give insincere apologies for something you didn’t do. Where this gets complicated is with upline delays. If a passenger’s SAV-ATL flight was delayed because the ATL-SAV leg was delayed due to weather, is that’s within the carrier’s control? If a passenger’s Monday morning flight XNA-CVG is delayed for FAA-mandated crew rest because thunderstorms on Sunday night caused the inbound to get in late, is that in the carrier’s control?

  3. This topic is getting lots of play recently. As stated in an internal SWA memo yesterday, the mechanical portion of the force majeure refers to external issues (ATC outages, airport issues), not SWA aircraft mechanicals. You are correct that the rest of the contract of carriage goes on to back that up. Maybe bad choice of words, but it is explained by reading further.

  4. How would a passenger know a mechanical wasn’t the airlines fault? If they defer maintenance on something even a small item today, that could cause a problem tomorrow and cancel the flight. If Bob is to lazy to finish his maintenace work and/or doesn’t tighten a screw enough and that causes a problem then it is the airlines fault. The big problem is the passenger gets told it’s not the airlines fault and they have no choice but to fend for themselves.

    If you can’t get your passenger to where they paid to go because of your employees or planes, then it’s the airlines fault.

  5. I feel bad for the customer service agents who have to explain to customers that this is something beyond their control. There are going to be a whole lot of angry people feeling like they’re being fed a line of bull hockey.

  6. I see the problem being other carriers will take notice and make changes to their policies so once again the customer will get screwed

  7. Chris is right, this is a simple reporting error. (I work for SWA). Aircraft mechanical difficulties are not considered force majeure, but mechanical difficulties at FAA towers, or airport facilities are definitely beyond our control. We could have been quicker to clarify the meaning of the changes, but as CEO Gary Kelly says, “When we do things right, we do them really well, and when we screw up, well, we do that really well too.”

  8. Brett, I enjoy reading your blog, but the “drunk pilot” jokes are offensive. Such incidents, while newsworthy, are not at all common and do not reflect the profession as a whole in one bit. It might get a chuckle from your road-warrior readers, but I expect better from you.

  9. “sea kitten attack” would have to happen in the water, right? Soooo, wouldn’t THAT be under the airline’s control? (and as an ex-airline crew scheduler married to an airline pilot, I found the “drunk pilot” joke hilarious…maybe you should have said, “pilots doing their bids instead of paying attention in the cockpit?”)

  10. Union action is hardly controlable by the company. I guess if the company fired all workers involved in an “action” then it might be under their control, but that is it.

  11. Frontier delayed a flight which caused a domino effect and I missed my connecting flight to New York. Thus, causing me to miss a Spider Man show the following day. I lost approx. $1200 because of a “safety” issue on one of their aircraft. Or they in any way reliable?

    1. I’d say that had they flown you with that safety issue instead of delaying the flight to fix it, then they would be unreliable! This happens to every airline, and Frontier is now different. You just got unlucky, I’m afraid.

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