Air traveler waits a year for refund check

Q: We have been trying to get a refund from Southwest Airlines for almost one year. It’s a refund that Southwest fully admits it owes but always finds another excuse not to pay. I hope you can help us.

Last spring, my family had tickets to fly from Fort Myers, Fla., to Milwaukee. When we arrived at the gate, a Southwest agent told us our flight was oversold and that all seats had been assigned. We were denied boarding.

They informed us that we had two options: either accept a refund of the cost of our return flight and find our own way home, or take the next available flight from Ft. Myers to Milwaukee, which was not until two days later.

We took the refund. The agent wrote a check with the numerical amount of $1,387.20. However, she wrote the dollar amount in longhand as “One Thousand Three Hundred and Seventy Three 40/100.” Therefore, there was a discrepancy in the two identified amounts written on the check.

In all the commotion that was occurring with a number of passengers trying to deal with this same issue, we did not notice Southwest’s error in writing this check. We only discovered the error when we were notified five days later that our bank refused to deposit the check because the dollar amount did not match the legal written amount.

We contacted Southwest by phone and were told they would write a new check. But we’ve gone back and forth for months, and I’ve been getting passed from one department to another. We’ve also reported this to the Department of Transportation. Still no check.

As a result of Southwest Airlines’ denying us boarding rights to our scheduled flight, we incurred significant costs to obtain four one-way tickets on another airline. Because we were forced to buy one-way tickets with less than seven days advance purchase, we had to pay the highest rate possible. Can you help us get our money back? – Greg Melgares, Milwaukee, Wis.

A: Southwest should have written you a check in the right amount when you couldn’t board. But that’s not all.

Have a look at the airline’s travel policies (www.southwest.com/assets/pdfs/corporate-commitments/contract-of-carriage.pdf). Its contract of carriage (PDF download) spells out Southwest’s obligations when you’re turned away at the gate, a process referred to as involuntary denied boarding. Check out section 9 under “Service Interruptions.”

You were entitled to more than just a refund for being kicked off your flight. You should have received twice the sum of the value of your remaining flight coupon, or you could have opted for flight vouchers for the same amount.

No question about it, Southwest shorted you.

I’m surprised the Transportation Department didn’t get involved in your case. The involuntary denied boarding compensation requirements are part of federal regulations, and they are well-enforced by the government.

If this ever happens to you again, don’t allow yourself to be processed by a ticket agent. I understand there were crowds at the airport – after all, it was spring break – and that the agents seemed overworked. But this is what they do, and you shouldn’t feel bad if they’re having a stressful day.

Stop the process. Pull up the airline’s contract of carriage on your cellphone and read the paragraphs about involuntary denied boardings. Don’t let them hurry you up and force a resolution. Read the check and make sure it lines up with what the contract says.

I contacted Southwest on your behalf. It called you and apologized, saying the person responsible for your refund had left the company and that your refund had “fallen through the cracks.” It overnighted to you a check for the correct amount and a $500 travel voucher.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Email him at celliott@ngs.org, or troubleshoot your trip through his website, www.elliott.org. Distributed by Tribune Media Services.