For many travelers it probably felt like déjà vu Tuesday morning when Southwest briefly halted all takeoffs to address technical problems, bringing back memories of the airline’s epic operational meltdown during the 2022 holiday season that stranded millions of fliers.
Back in December 2022, Southwest’s internal operations—specifically, the systems that connect pilots and flight crew with the aircraft they are supposed to be on—collapsed amid a torrent of weather-related disruptions as severe winter storms struck across the USA just as huge swaths of travelers were heading out for the holidays. This time around, Southwest has cited “data connection issues resulting from a firewall failure.”
Thankfully, on Tuesday, operations resumed within an hour (versus the days it took for Southwest to untangle the holiday mess). While flight delays mounted—Southwest was experiencing 1,820 fight delays as of press time, or 43 percent of its schedule, according to flight tracking website FlightAware—flight cancellations were still at a minimum as of Tuesday morning.
“Southwest has resumed operations after temporarily pausing flight activity this morning to work through data connection issues resulting from a firewall failure. Early this morning, a vendor-supplied firewall went down and connection to some operational data was unexpectedly lost,” Southwest said in an operational update on its website.
At 10:36 a.m. ET, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) informed travelers via Twitter that Southwest had requested the FAA pause the airline’s departures.
Less than an hour later, at 11:10 a.m. ET, the FAA tweeted that “this morning @SouthwestAir experienced a technical issue with one of their internal systems. At the airline’s request, the FAA paused Southwest’s departures as they resolved the issue. The pause has been lifted and their service has resumed.”
Can Southwest travelers get a refund?
As for travelers affected by the brief halt in operations, Southwest stated that all customers holding a Southwest flight reservation for April 18 are welcome to rebook their flight in the same class of service or travel standby (within 14 days of their original travel date between the same destination and origin cities) at no extra charge.
Following the news, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg tweeted, “We are here to ensure passengers have strong protections when airline failures like this affect their plans.” Buttigieg encouraged travelers to visit the U.S. Department of Transportation’s recently created Airline Customer Service Dashboard, which provides fliers with information about the type and level of recompense they are due when flights are canceled or delayed.
According to the dashboard, Southwest has agreed to rebook passengers at no additional cost for significant delays (which it has already stated it will do), provide a meal or meal voucher when flights are delayed by more than three hours, and provide hotel accommodations (and transfer to and from the hotel) for passengers affected by an overnight delay.
As for whether travelers can get a full refund due to a significant delay (they absolutely can when a flight is canceled by the airline due to any operational issues), the DOT states that the “consumer is entitled to a refund if the airline made a significant schedule change and/or significantly delays a flight and the consumer chooses not to travel.” However, the DOT doesn’t specify what constitutes a “significant delay.”
“Whether you are entitled to a refund depends on many factors—including the length of the delay, the length of the flight, and your particular circumstances,” the agency states, adding that it will determine whether travelers are entitled to a refund following a significant delay on a case-by-case basis. Thus, for those affected by what they feel is a significant delay, it could be worth filing a complaint with the DOT to see if they are due a refund.
The latest technology snafu at Southwest comes after the airline canceled around 16,700 flights during the holidays, affecting more than 2 million travelers. In the aftermath of the meltdown, Southwest CEO Bob Jordan issued numerous apologies to customers and offered several avenues of compensation, including a big mileage boost. In January, Jordan pledged to set aside approximately $1 billion to upgrade IT systems.
In a statement provided to AFAR in January, a Southwest spokesperson said that tech upgrades are already in the works, “and we now have even more lessons learned from what happened in December to prevent future disruptions.”
According to airline industry insiders, a lack of investment in aging technology is what led to the problems Southwest experienced in December but also at the government level. Following Southwest’s massive tech failure in December, the FAA experienced a computer crash on January 11 that, for the first time since the September 11 attacks in 2001, resulted in an almost blanket shutdown of U.S. airspace. The glitch occurred in the agency’s “Notice to Air Missions” (NOTAM) system, which sends critical safety notices to pilots on conditions like runway closures or airspace restrictions due to military exercises. While the grounding order was only in effect for a few hours, more than 11,000 flights were delayed or canceled as a result.
Members of Congress and the Transportation Department have been holding hearings and have vowed to take a closer look into what caused issues like the Southwest December 2022 operational collapse—and whether and what kind of corrective actions need to be taken by the airlines in situations such as this latest technical glitch.
Barbara Peterson contributed reporting.