The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) today assessed a civil penalty against Southwest Airlines for violating federal rules regarding passengers denied boarding (“bumped”) on oversold flights.
“The Department of Transportation is committed to protecting the rights of airline passengers,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “We expect airlines to comply with our rules when they must bump passengers, and we will take enforcement action when they do not.”
Southwest was ordered to cease and desist from further violations and assessed a civil penalty of $200,000. Up to $20,000 of the penalty may be used by the carrier to develop methods beyond what DOT requires to provide prominent notice to passengers of the carrier’s oversales policies and the rights of bumped passengers.
When a flight is oversold, DOT regulations require airlines to seek volunteers willing to give up their seats for compensation. If not enough volunteers can be found and the carrier must bump passengers involuntarily, the carrier is required to give bumped passengers a written statement describing their rights and explaining how it decides who will be bumped from an oversold flight. In most cases, passengers bumped involuntarily also are entitled to cash compensation of up to $800.
The DOT Aviation Enforcement Office’s investigation of Southwest’s compliance with the bumping rule included a review of consumer complaints sent to the carrier and a site inspection at the airline’s headquarters during 2009. The investigation revealed numerous instances in which Southwest denied boarding to passengers but did not comply with provisions of the bumping rule.
The consent order is available on the Internet at www.regulations.com, docket DOT-OST-2010-0005. A summary of the oversales rules is available at airconsumer.dot.gov/publications/flyrights.htm#overbooking.