Why Southwest isn’t responsible for aircraft maintenance

Airlines generally stack the deck against their customers. Most rules are written such that should anything go wrong, the airline will likely benefit more than the passengers do. In some cases this is reasonable – an airline certainly isn’t responsible for delays caused when weather happens – but in many cases it is not. Historically airlines have accepted that maintenance of their aircraft is something that they are responsible for and that a mechanical failure of a plane is something that they should have avoided in the first place, leaving them on the hook to care for passengers during any associated delay or cancelation.

Southwest has decided to push the envelope on this issue, however, declaring that mechanical failures of their aircraft are force majeure events in their newly revised Contract of Carriage (CoC):

Force Majeure Event means any event outside of Carrier’s control, including, without limitation, acts of God, meteorological events, such as storms, rain, wind, fire, fog, flooding, earthquakes, haze, volcanic eruption or any other event, including, without limitation, government action, disturbances or potentially volatile international conditions, civil commotions, riots, embargoes, wars, or hostilities, whether actual, threatened, or reported, strikes, work stoppage, slowdown, lockout or any other labor related dispute involving or affecting Carrier’s service, mechanical difficulties, Air Traffic Control, the inability to obtain fuel, labor or landing facilities for the flight in question or any fact not reasonably foreseen, anticipated or predicted by Carrier.

Tucked away at the bottom there is the phrase “mechanical difficulties.” Having those two words in this section of the CoC essentially means that Southwest has significantly fewer obligations to their customers now should there be an aircraft breakdown. Southwest is the only major US-based carrier to include that phrase in the force majeure section of their CoC. Maybe this only applies if the whole fleet is affected – think DOT maintenance directive or something similar – but that certainly is not clear from the way the Contract is written. Moreover, there are a number of seemingly conflicting sections in the CoC that Southwest may or may not hold responsibility in the same instance. These gray areas are dangerous territory for customers.

Combined with the move to limit the use of travel credits for canceled reservations, the new Southwest CoC takes a significant step backwards in customer flexibility and care. The airline has made a name for itself in many ways because of the reputation it carries for customer care. These changes portend a very unfortunate change in such customer-focused service.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. Have you been able to get Brian Lusk or any of their CorpComm guys to comment on this or provide clarification? It seems like a stark culture change that they would at least provide some PR spin for.

  2. Unfortunately it is a Sunday and I’m not going to bother them with something this trivial on the weekend. I’ll put in a call on Monday to see what they have to say, though the one set of comments they provided in the AZ Star article was not particularly optimistic. Their previous comments were that they “wanted to limited liability” and they certainly have done that. Customers be damned.

  3. Aramean,
    You have been a victim of faulty reporting. This is what Linda Rutherford our VP Communications and Strategic Outreach told Chris Elliot on his blog:

    In our latest update, we offered our definition, which states that “Force Majeure Event means any event outside of Carrier’s control” and so the “mechanical difficulties” we are referring to as Force Majeure events would be those outside of our control, such as airport mechanical difficulties (e.g., the airport de-icing system breaks) or Air Traffic Control issues (e.g., airport or regional tower goes down).

    We are not referring to our own aircraft mechanical difficulties, which would clearly be under our control. Our policies and practices confirm this interpretation.

    None of our procedures have changed — we still accommodate customers exactly the same as we did previously in the event of our own aircraft mechanical issues occur.

    For the complete post, please go to the blog: http://www.elliott.org/blog/truthsquadding-the-southwest-airlines-act-of-god-controversy-ultimately-this-is-a-reporting-error-run-amok/

  4. Hey, Brian…thanks for the feedback.

    I’ve read Chris Elliott’s report and I’ve read the CoC. I’m not a victim of faulty reporting. I am reporting EXACTLY what is written in your contract. If you guys want to make a policy that says you are not responsible for mechanical failures of 3rd party equipment then write that in the CoC. Until you do so I will continue to maintain that the protections you are affording your customers have diminished and that they are sub-par relative to what other carriers in the USA offer.

    If you really want to fix it you need the lawyers to do so, not the PR machine. When things go bad – and eventually they will – you have a contract with a very vague term that can be easily twisted to your benefit and all I’ve got is a quote from your Corporate Communications department. You’ll forgive me for not feeling all warm and fuzzy inside based on that, I hope.

    And the fact that this isn’t the only change made recently that reduces the customer-focus of the carrier makes me even less inclined to give the benefit of the doubt.

  5. Seth’s absolutely right, Brian. If the CoC is meaning maintenance failures on the part of airports or ATC, it has to read as such. It’s a legally-binding contract and there can’t be any grey areas or promises of “don’t worry, that’s not how we’ll interpret it”.

    I can’t decide if it’s more insulting that the change was made, or that Southwest has been trying to spin in multiple media outlets that it’s “sloppy reporting”. No, it’s sloppy lawyering, and then sloppy form to blame it on others. That ain’t like you, Southwest.

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