My awesome experience with a Southwest flight delay!

I want to come out right from the beginning and say that I fully understand my excitement about a delay is coming a few days after said delay. Which is basically saying that this would have sounded a bit different had it been written when the wound was still somewhat fresh.

But, nonetheless, my recent experiences with a delay on Southwest were so positive that I wanted to quickly write about it here.

A little backstory

So last Thursday I was travelling home from Tampa to Washington-DCA on a flight that I’ve been taking pretty consistently over the last few months. And to be honest, I don’t know how I’ve been so lucky in that timespan. Especially during the rainy season in Florida, I’ve had really no delays (it’s too late to knock on wood).

To set the scene, there was no weather in the Tampa area (as there can be pretty frequently this time of year), and while there was a bit of rain in DC, there wasn’t enough to cause any major delays.

I hadn’t received any kind of notification from Southwest about any issues, but I was minding my own business and suddenly realized that there was an update to the information board. All of a sudden my flight had been pushed from a 4:45 pm takeoff to 6:00 pm. Not a huge deal, as I was actually getting a bit of work done, and it looked like they’d make up some of the delay in the air.

But the real fun started when I decided to walk around the terminal — get my steps in, enjoy some of the sights– like this 737-MAX!

As I was roaming the terminal I decided to take another gander at the departure boards and noticed that my departure time was now 8:20 pm!! A 3.5 hour delay!

At this point I was a bit annoyed so I decided I’d see what was going on at the gate.

I missed some announcements, but from what I heard, there had to be a plane switch somewhere on the route leading to Tampa. Something about capacity, as the 737-800 we had on our flight is a larger Southwest fleet plane.

This was obviously a bummer, but my options were limited and I decided I wouldn’t mind sticking around the airport and getting some work done.

Patience is a virtue

One thing I learned in my early business travel experiences was to take a direct flight wherever possible. Which rung true (resoundingly) again here.

One of the very few downsides of air travel is the inevitable delays that come with it. As much as we all like to hoot and holler about the issues with each airline, there are just always going to be delays in the airline industry. And ultimately, delays are always rooted in the airline looking out for customer safety.

So, back to the saga ensuing in Tampa, I was sitting at the gate looking at a delay of a little less than 4 hours. As stated, I was oddly content, but could see the line forming at the desk. It looked like people were either trying to route elsewhere, or even staying the night in Tampa and taking a flight in the morning.

I will say that the gate agents handled the situation very well. Unlike some other airlines, they kept us very informed with any updates, and seemed to be very accommodating to anyone that came to the desk with concerns.

The best part of this story, though, was what happened after all this madness died down. I was pretty busy at work, but at around 6 pm, more than 2 hours from the departure time, the gate agents made an announcement for all passengers to get lined up by last name to collect “your voucher.”

There was no announcement made about the cash value of the vouchers (which will be noteworthy later), but I received a $100 voucher eligible for any purchases made with Southwest! I would say more than worth it for a couple hour delay.

So when are you eligible for a Southwest voucher

While I didn’t expect a voucher for the delay, as most airlines would never do that (especially not just in the airport), I did some research later on that this was somewhat consistent with Southwest’s practices. But I want to dive a bit deeper so you know when you may deserve some extra cash.

When is Southwest obligated to compensate?

When looking on the Southwest Customer Service agreement, the specifics around compensation for flight delays is (most likely) purposefully vague. Reading through the document on their website, there are a few things that I wanted to point out under the “Irregular Operations” heading.

The most valuable information I got from the entire document is what they did not include. More specifically, there is no talk of vouchers or monetary compensation. They do cover the idea of delays, though, and specifically when Southwest is required to make accommodations in the event of a delay.

I did want to point out one thing, though, when it comes to delays that cause you to have to stay a night somewhere.

“…However, 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…”

“…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…”

This is where most airlines clearly try to delineate between a delay in the airlines operations (i.e. crew shortage, plane maintenance) and a delay outside of their control (i.e. weather, airport closures). Of course, they don’t really get into specific at all, which leaves it slightly up to the crew on the ground what exactly is within their control.

But back to my original point, I think Southwest, like any other airline is intentionally vague on what compensation they are on the hook for. But as far as vouchers go, I’m not really sure they are ever truly obligated to pay out.

When you can expect a voucher

But of course, I am writing this because I was compensated. I have flown enough, and had plenty of delays, to understand that I just wasn’t getting anything. And to be honest, I was not expecting it.

But I did. I got a $100 voucher for a 3.5 hour delay, that was totally within Southwest’s control — which is I think what truly differentiates this. As I understood it, Southwest made an aircraft swap to accommodate increased volume on a flight later on in the schedule.

To quickly review, Southwest has a different operational model than most other airlines. Instead of the “hub-based” model that most major US airlines follow, Southwest does not have true hubs, and most planes will fly all over the US in a 24 hr period. You’ll notice this when a Southwest FA announces the flight route you’re on at the beginning of the flight — “Our flight heading to Houston, then continuing onto Kansas City and Oakland.”

While this model offers availability in a lot of markets where other airlines miss out, issues like the one I found myself in tend to flare up more often. Which luckily provides quite a few data points on trip delay compensation with Southwest.

I stumbled upon a Southwest FlyerTalk thread that talks about the exact compensation people got after delays. This specific post caught my attention:

And after reading through many other helpful comments I came to the following consolidated list of (unofficial) delay compensation voucher rules:

  • Flight delays outside of the airlines control will not be compensated — this includes weather and delays caused by airports.
  • A one-way flight delay caused by the airlines, over 3 hours will get you a $100 voucher valid for 1 year on any purchases made directly on the airline.
  • A flight delay caused by airlines, over 3 hours that affects your connecting flight could get you a $200 voucher valid for 1 year on any purchases made directly on the airline

This is what I can gather from the FlyerTalk thread mentioned above, as well as my very short experiences, but like anything in this business the actual situation is left up to a ton of interpretation. Each scenario, as well as the Southwest agents at the airport can have an affect on how that compensation is doled out.

Final thoughts…

The last thing I want to mention is that you may be eligible for some kind of compensation even if you didn’t receive such a voucher in the airport. On the thread a lot of people talk about getting either an email involuntarily a few days later, or calling customer service and receiving a voucher. So even if you don’t receive a voucher in the manner I did, it’s always worth asking for one if you think you deserve it.

I know I’ve written a lot of good things about Southwest recently, which maybe means that only bad luck will come in the future, but for now I have been very pleased with my shifted loyalty.

Tucker is an avid points and miles enthusiast. Being fully involved in the world of credit cards and frequent flying for only a few years now, he brings a very fresh and unique perspective to the world of travel.

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