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Under US Law, Southwest Passengers Seeking Compensation Could Be Stranded All Over Again

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While the European Union and Canada require airlines to reimburse travelers beyond ticket prices, the US does not.

Between hotels and car rentals, 33-year-old Steven Murray spent more than $1,400 getting his family of seven home to Atlanta after a holiday trip to New York City. That was on top of the $800 they initially spent on Southwest flights, which were canceled. They have yet to see any reimbursement. The $500 rental van they found to get them back to Georgia this week didn’t have enough room to fit one passenger’s wheelchair, so they had to throw it away and carry the 63-year-old wheelchair user to the restaurants and restrooms where they stopped during their 16-hour drive home.

Zach Shaw, a 24-year-old who does public relations work in Chicago, was trying to get from Ohio, where he was visiting family, to New Year’s celebrations in Miami, Florida. Southwest canceled his flight without giving him any option to rebook, while other airlines priced him out of making it to Florida at all. Had a family member not offered him a ride back to Chicago, he would have had to come up with $5,000 for a new flight or nearly $4,000 for a rental car.

Meanwhile, the mother of a 23-year-old member of the US Air Force had to shell out $800 in American Airlines tickets to get her son home on December 26 after Southwest stranded him in three different airports over three days, including Christmas Day. He was not offered a hotel, a refund, or even a bottle of water, says his mom, Kerri, who asked Mother Jones not to publish their last name because of Air Force policies. Kerri hopes Southwest will refund her son’s initial Southwest flights and at least some of the American flights, but “no amount of money replaces the time he and we as his family lost,” she says.

These three families are part of a massive, disgruntled club of Southwest passengers. First, extreme weather forced the airline to drop flights, but even after the weather stabilized, the problems continued. The airline canceled more than 2,900 flights on Monday, and roughly 2,500 each on both Tuesday and Wednesday, according to flight tracker Flight Aware. If all of those flights were full—as many usually are around the holidays—that could represent around 1,264,000 customers who, by and large, were simply shit out of luck.

Once Southwest was the fun, passenger-friendly carrier known for low fares, festival-style seating, and a liberal 2-free bag policy. But during the Christmas holidays, it scrapped more than 60 percent of its scheduled flights, separated thousands of passengers from their bags, and is struggling to maintain customer service helplines. Southwest said it would be several more days before it can resume normal operations. In a video statement Tuesday, Southwest CEO Bob Jordan said he is “truly sorry” for the stress it has put on passengers and staff. Jordan added that he hopes Southwest will “be back on track before next week.”

But does Southwest Airlines legally owe anything to these people who slept on airport carpets, survived off overpriced and under-seasoned airport food, and missed out on rare celebrations with families and friends?

The simple answer is not much.

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