Md. couple recounts reimbursement struggle with Southwest Airlines after December debacle

Back in December, Mark Hessie and his wife Stephanie showed up at BWI Marshall Airport in Maryland ready to board the first of two Southwest Airlines flights that would take them to Cancun, Mexico, for a long-anticipated Christmas vacation. That flight would never happen. The Hessies would instead be among the thousands of travelers caught in a wave of cancellations by the airline.

“We were stranded there,” Stephanie Hessie said.

The couple and their son made alternate plans which involved booking a flight for $3,000 on American Airlines out of Philadelphia.

“We had to Uber from BWI to Philadelphia in order to make that flight with no luggage,” she said. “We basically had the clothes on our back to get us to Cancun.”

They arrived in Cancun without their luggage but made the most of their trip. In watching news coverage of the situation involving Southwest, they felt some comfort in seeing reports that the airline planned to compensate passengers.

“We were relieved to hear that (the) Secretary of Transportation was going to ensure that everybody got their refunds from Southwest, and Southwest assured us that they were going to make everything right for their customers,” Mark Hessie said.

In a letter to Southwest CEO Robert Jordan, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg called for the airline to reimburse passengers within 20 days. Still, for the Hessies, they said while most of their costs were refunded, they never saw the final $1,500 they paid for the canceled Southwest trip.

In trying to get back their remaining balance, the Hessies said they spent almost 30 hours over the course of four months on the phone with agents at the airline. Each time, they claim, they would be told to call back days later, and once they’d returned the call, they had to start the process all over again.

“You just almost want to say ‘forget it,’ like the money’s gone. But in our case, we can’t let that much money go,” Stephanie said.

According to the Hessies, one reason for the delay was the family being documented by the airline as a “no show” for the second flight from Florida to Cancun. The second issue, the airlines’ rules regarding reimbursed money only applies to trips booked without using Southwest gift cards. Since they purchased the trip with gift cards to receive a discount on tickets, they were only offered a mix of travel credits, which don’t expire, and vouchers that do. They said that offer only came after they reached out to Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin’s office for help.

“We just don’t have the confidence in Southwest that we used to as far as flying with them, especially on the holidays, and we don’t want credits. We want the actual money that we paid for the tickets,” Stephanie said.

WTOP reached out to Southwest Airlines, and spokesperson Dan Landson said the company is looking into the case.

“Our Customer Engagement Team elevated the situation to re-review the Customers’ situation and they’re in the process of reaching out to them to discuss the next steps. As this was originally purchased with a gift card, there are policies and processes the Team follows while handling refunds and we’ll be taking the steps to make it right with the Customers,” Landson wrote in an email.

Just a few hours after reaching out, the couple said Southwest Airlines contacted them and agreed to reimburse them with a check. The Hessies said they were relieved after receiving a call from the airline and are happy to be moving forward.

“If I had to do it all over again, I would have just used my credit card to pay for the flights because I would have been reimbursed back in January,” Mark said.

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Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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