'This is just so anti-consumer': Southwest early-boarding fee policy reversed after coronavirus backlash

Robert Lawson was supposed to visit his son and newborn granddaughter in Las Vegas in late March but canceled his flight a couple weeks ago when the coronavirus spread “got real hairy.”

Southwest Airlines quickly put the frequent flyer points he used for the round-trip ticket back into his account. 

What the Denver criminal investigator hasn’t gotten back, even in the form of a credit: the $40 in fees he paid for Southwest’s popular early boarding option, EarlyBird Check-In. The fee, which costs $15-$25 per person each way, gives travelers a better boarding position on Southwest, which doesn’t assign seats.

“They just point blank said, ‘No, you’re not getting it back.”’ 

Southwest’s longstanding no-refund policy for EarlyBird fees unless the airline cancels your flight left Lawson and scores of other Southwest passengers fuming during the coronavirus crisis, and is more stringent than many of its competitors. The airline’s online forum is filled with complaints about EarlyBird refunds and travelers are also complaining on Twitter and Facebook.

The gripe: Passengers who proactively canceled their flights and have no clue when they will fly again given the global health crisis — something happening in numbers so big airline call centers have been overwhelmed for weeks — should receive their EarlyBird money back too, or at least a travel credit, as they do for the airfare portion of their ticket. 

GALLERY: Deserted iconic landmarks

Slide 1 of 40: A cyclist rides across the water remaining in the Reflecting Pool which has been drained for maintenance in Washington, DC on March 26, 2020.
Slide 2 of 40: The empty Champs-Elysees Avenue and the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, at night on March 24, 2020, on the eighth day of a lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in France.
Slide 3 of 40: Egyptian municipality workers disinfect the Giza pyramids necropolis on the southwestern outskirts of the Egyptian capital Cairo on March 25, 2020 as protective a measure against the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19.
Slide 4 of 40: Greek military helicopters fly over the Acropolis on Greece's Independence Day, in Athens on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. The annual military parade commemorates Greek Independence Day, which marks the start of the war of independence in 1821 against the 400-year Ottoman rule, was cancelled on Wednesday amid a circulation ban imposed to slow the spread of the COVID-19 but a flyover with jets and helicopters took place.

Slide 5 of 40: An almost empty Westminster Bridge normally a very busy river crossing as the sun rises in London, March 24, 2020. Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday imposed its most draconian peacetime restrictions due to the spread of the coronavirus on businesses and gatherings, health workers begged for more gear, saying they felt like "cannon fodder."
Slide 6 of 40: A cyclist rides past Buckingham Palace in central London on the morning on March 24, 2020 after Britain ordered a lockdown to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Slide 7 of 40: Street performer Eddie Webb looks around the nearly deserted French Quarter looking to make money in New Orleans, March 22, 2020. With much of the city already hunkered down due to the coronavirus pandemic, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards issues a shelter-in-place order to take effect starting March 23, 2020 at 5:00 PM.
Slide 8 of 40: A jogger wears a mask as he runs along Millenium Bridge in London on the morning on March 24, 2020 after Britain ordered a lockdown to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Slide 9 of 40: As the coronavirus pandemic spreads around the world, some of the most iconic tourist destinations are closing or remain deserted.  Here, a man walks on the deserted Trocadero square in front of the Eiffel Tower on March 21, 2020 in Paris on the fifth day of a strict nationwide lockdown seeking to halt the spread of the COVID-19 infection caused by novel coronavirus

Slide 10 of 40: A security guard patrols with his dog near the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel int Jardin des Tuileries garden on March 21, 2020 in Paris on the fifth day of a strict nationwide lockdown seeking to halt the spread of COVID-19.
Slide 11 of 40: French Gendarmes patrol the beach of Porticcio on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica on March 21, 2020, closed to the public as a strict lockdown comes into in effect in France to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Slide 12 of 40: A general view of Trafalgar Square on March 21, 2020 in London, England. Londoners are feeling the impact of shutdowns due to Coronavirus.
Slide 13 of 40: A Chinese tourist wears a protective mask as she visit the almost empty Badaling Great Wall on March 24, 2020 in Beijing, China. Affected by the new coronavirus covid-19, the Badaling Great Wall closed on Jan. 25.
Slide 14 of 40: The Rotunda of the US Capitol empty is seen in Washington, DC on March 19, 2020.

Slide 15 of 40: The intersection at 42nd St. & 7th Ave. in the Times Square area of New York City is almost completely free of people on March 19, 2020.
Slide 16 of 40: A few tourists walk along Circular Quay in Sydney near the Sydney Opera House on March 20, 2020, after Australia moved to seal off its borders the day before, announcing unprecedented bans on entry for non-residents in the hope of stemming the rise of COVID-19 coronavirus infections.
Slide 17 of 40: The streets surrounding the castle are quieter than usual at Windsor Castle on March 19, 2020 in Windsor, England.
Slide 18 of 40: Security guards patrol around closed Stonehenge on March 20, 2020 in Amesbury, United Kingdom. English Heritage, which manages the site said, Our first priority is the health and wellbeing of all visitors, volunteers and staff, and we hope you can understand why we have taken this unprecedented step," it said. "We appreciate this is a very important time for druids, pagans and other spiritual people and hope you will still be able to celebrate the spring equinox in your own special way. English Heritage said it would "continue to plan for the summer solstice in the hope it will still take place".
Slide 19 of 40: A low number of tourists are seen at Taj Mahal amid concerns over the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, in Agra on March 16, 2020.
Slide 20 of 40: A tourist wearing a respiratory mask walks past the closed Colosseum in Rome, Italy on March 10, 2020.
Slide 21 of 40: A tourist wearing a protective facemask takes a picture with her phone in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, on March 17, 2020, a few hours before the order to stay home for all French citizens goes into effect.
Slide 22 of 40: Even for a typically slow Sunday afternoon Grand Central Terminal in New York City was quieter than usual March 15, 2020 as Coronavirus concerns kept travelers and tourists off the streets and away from popular destinations in the city.
Slide 23 of 40: The Louvre Museum stands empty on March 15, 2020 in Paris, France.
Slide 24 of 40: The Oculus transportation hub in Lower Manhattan is mostly devoid of commuters and tourists on March 15, 2020 in New York City.
Slide 25 of 40: Tourists stand at an overlook by the (L to R) Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops), Pyramid of Khafre (Chephren), and Pyramid of Menkaure (Menkheres) at the Giza pyramids necropolis on the southwestern outskirts of the Egyptian capital on March 13, 2020.
Slide 26 of 40: A police vehicle and security guard man the entrance to a closed Santa Monica Pier, one of the most popular tourist attractions in southern California on March 16, 2020 in Santa Monica, Calif.
Slide 27 of 40: A man wearing a mask walks by the Spanish Steps at a deserted Piazza di Spagna in central Rome, Italy on March 12, 2020.
Slide 28 of 40: Aida Cruz, left, and Jose Chavez, take photos at the Space Needle, March 13, 2020, in Seattle. The two were visiting from San Antonio, Texas and had planned to take the elevator up the Needle for a view of the city, but they discovered that the iconic landmark and tourist attraction had closed Friday and will remain shuttered through the end of March.
Slide 29 of 40: The Pike Place Market stands virtually empty of patrons on March 10, 2020 in downtown Seattle, Washington. The historic farmer's market is Seattle's most popular tourist attraction.
Slide 30 of 40: The East Plaza of the Capitol is seen early March 13, 2020, in Washington, after the complex was shut down to tourists and non-essential visitors.
Slide 31 of 40: A tourist looks at the nearly deserted Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, after Israel has imposed some of the world's tightest restrictions to contain COVID-19 coronavirus disease, in Jerusalem on March 12, 2020.
Slide 32 of 40: Muslim worshippers circle the sacred Kaaba in Mecca's Grand Mosque, Islam's holiest site, on March 13, 2020.
Slide 33 of 40: Few people are seen at San Francisco's popular Fisherman's Wharf tourist destination on March 12, 2020 in San Francisco, Calif.
Slide 34 of 40: A father adjusts his son's mask between the Queen Victoria Memorial and Buckingham Palace in London on March 14, 2020.
Slide 35 of 40: A tourist stands outside the Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona, Spain, Friday, March 13, 2020. The basilica closed its doors to visitors and suspended construction on March 13.
Slide 36 of 40: Tourists pose for photos on the Brooklyn Bridge, March 16, 2020 in New York. The bridge's pedestrian and bicycle path is normally crowded on a sunny day.
Slide 37 of 40: A general view taken on March 11, 2020 shows a woman walking across deserted St. Mark's Square and its basilica in Venice.
Slide 38 of 40: A general view of the empty Vatican's St. Peter's Square and its main basilica on March 15, 2020 days after its closure to tourists as part of a wider crackdown to contain the coronavirus pandemic.
Slide 39 of 40: Soldiers wearing protective face masks march past the closed entrance gates to the Forbidden City, usually crowded with tourists before the new coronavirus outbreak in Beijing, March 12, 2020.
Slide 40 of 40: A food truck vendor pushes his cart down an empty street near Times Square in New York, on March 15, 2020.

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads around the world, some of the most iconic tourist destinations are closing or remain deserted.

Here, a man walks on the deserted Trocadero square in front of the Eiffel Tower on March 21, 2020 in Paris on the fifth day of a strict nationwide lockdown seeking to halt the spread of the COVID-19 infection caused by novel coronavirus

Despite the rancor, Southwest wasn’t budging on the policy as recently as Thursday morning. But by Thursday afternoon, officials announced a temporary change to customer service representatives.

The new policy: passengers with travel dates between March 1 and May 31 who cancel their reservations can request a credit for EarlyBird fees paid. It will be a voucher good for one year that can be used for a future flight.

The voucher will be issued for all the EarlyBird fees paid on the same reservation so families and other groups get one voucher and not travel funds in each passengers’ nam

es, as happens with airfare credit. The voucher cannot be used in the future for EarlyBird fees, though. 

“The Southwest team prides itself on the hospitality we offer and our willingness to look at issues on a case-by-case basis to assist our customers,” Southwest spokesman Brian Parrish said in a statement. “We hope this new exception provides more flexibility for our customers who purchased EarlyBird but choose not to travel during these dynamic times. We look forward to welcoming each customer onboard another Southwest flight one day very soon.”

The policy applies to travelers who already canceled flights, like Lawson, and were told no refund, as well as those canceling future flights for travel through May 31. 

To receive a voucher, travelers need to call Southwest reservations or customer relations or email the airline.

Travelers with tickets for dat

es beyond May 31 will be subject to the no-refund policy unless Southwest extends the temporary policy, or the airline cancels their flight. 

Southwest’s policy is still more stringent than the fee-refund policies at some of the airline’s competitors because it is only offering a voucher, while several other airlines are giving travelers their money back for prepaid fees, even if they are only receiving a travel credit for their flights.

American Airlines, for example, is refunding prepaid seat fees and any other ancillary charges for passengers who cancel flights scheduled through May 31, according to spokesman Ross Feinstein. Passengers have to request the refund on American’s website. 

United has also been refunding seat fees and any prepaid fees for passengers with flights through May 31, too, spokeswoman Nicole Carrieresaid. 

Delta is offering fee refunds, too, for travelers who cancel any upcoming trips, spokesman Drake Castaneda said.

Allegiant Air, which built a business around offering bargain ticket prices with a lineup of additional fees for extras, including an advance seat assignment, says travelers who cancel their flights receive a credit for the full amount of their trip, including fees, according to spokeswoman Hilarie Grey.

‘I think it’s ridiculous in these times to be so cheap about something like that’

Rachel Shuster canceled an April flight from Baltimore to Boston on Southwest and changed another April flight, to Chicago, to June.  

The $40 in EarlyBird fees she paid for the Chicago flight transferred to her new reservation since she was just delaying the trip, but she was shocked to find out she was out $50 in EarlyBird fees for the Boston trip.

The airline simply pointed her to the policy on its website when she asked why she wasn’t getting the money back.

“I had no idea,” she said. “It must be in really fine print.”

Shuster said the money was not a big deal “in the grand scheme of things,” but she objected to the refund policy on principle. 

“With so many companies trying to make things as easy as possible for people … this is just so anti-consumer that it’s baffling to me,” she said. “I think it’s ridiculous in these times to be so cheap about something like that.”

She welcomed the change in policy, which will give her a $50 voucher.

“I think they must have heard from the public,” Shuster said. “In a time when everyone is feeling the pinch, to be so ruthless is ridiculous.”

Southwest takes in hundreds of millions of dollars from EarlyBird Check-In

Southwest earns raves from passengers, and a good chunk of business, from its fee-free stance. The airline is the only U.S. carrier to offer two free checked bags, and it doesn’t charge fees to change or cancel a reservation, fees that start at $200 on major airlines.

The airline’s fee revenue is a fraction of the amount major airlines collect as a result, but EarlyBird is a big moneymaker for the airline. Southwest collected $358 million in EarlyBird fees in 2017, the last year it broke out the figure. That represented more than 60% of its “other” fees revenue, a category which also includes charges for unaccompanied minors, in-flight drinks and Wi-Fi, among other things. Bag fee revenue that year, in contrast: $46 million. (Southwest charges for extra bags and overweight or oversized bags.)

Airline officials have said as recently as January that the EarlyBird revenues grew by double digits in the last three months of 2019.

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