Ask Airfare Watchdog: Costly Blizzard

Q: My flight on Southwest Airlines from Baltimore to Oakland on Feb. 8 was canceled because of the blizzard over the preceding weekend. When I called to reschedule I was offered either a refund or an alternate flight the next day. I pointed out that a second blizzard was forecast for Feb. 9 and the flight they were offering would in all likelihood be canceled as well. I also listed a number of alternate Southwest Airlines flights flying out on the afternoon of Feb. 8 from Baltimore to Oakland which were not canceled and could I please take one of them? I was told I could but it would cost me an extra $404. I quoted Southwest's contract of carriage that they will "transport the passenger at no additional charge on carrier's next flight(s) on which space is available to the passenger's intended destination" but the Southwest representative stuck to his guns and said the only way I'd get to Oakland on Southwest on Feb. 8 was to pay the extra $404 as it would involve three flight segments instead of my original ticket's two.

Unfortunately, I had to get to Oakland on Feb. 8 for a conference beginning the next day, and I figured since their own policy was on my side I'd just get a refund afterwards. I also didn't want to risk taking their alternate offer of flying on Feb. 9, which turned out to be a good decision as the second blizzard caused all flights from February 9 to 11 to be canceled. I paid the $404 for the alternate Baltimore to Oakland flight and flew out on the afternoon of Feb. 8 on an uneventful trip. I called Southwest's customer service and again was told the three flight segments it took to get me to Oakland comprised a completely different ticket than the two-segment trip I was originally booked on and I was therefore required to pay an additional $404. I pointed out it I was flying between the same two city pairs and their own policy stated they'd get me to my original destination at no extra cost but I might as well have been speaking Latin. So here I am, $404 poorer. Short of taking Southwest to court is there any agency which has the power to arbitrate my dispute?

A: We're not sure what happened here, but we contacted Southwest and they've agreed to refund your $404 and are also throwing in a $100 flight coupon for a future trip. It's always a good idea to keep on trying if you're sure you're in the right. As a general rule, airlines are more sympathetic if a flight irregularity was caused by something within their control rather than by weather or another "force majeure" event. But we can't quite understand why it would have inconvenienced Southwest to put you on alternate flights in this situation since seats were available. In any case, all is well and kudos to Southwest for making it right.