Major US airline Southwest Airlines has been fined $140m by the Department of Transport (DoT) due to the chaos it was responsible for last December. The penalty, while civil rather than criminal, is 30 times larger than any previous similar punishment, according to Washington’s DoT. 

At least 2 million passengers were left stranded at the end of 2022 when huge storms hit the US and nearly 17,000 flights were cancelled by Southwest. 

But the fines are not related to the failures on an operational level, but to Southwest’s failure to properly care for its passengers, many of whom were stranded without flights – or any information. 

“Today’s action sets a new precedent and sends a clear message: if airlines fail their passengers, we will use the full extent of our authority to hold them accountable,” US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement.

“Taking care of passengers is not just the right thing to do — it’s required, and this penalty should put all airlines on notice to take every step possible to ensure that a meltdown like this never happens again,” Buttigieg added.

While $140m for an airline with $12bn in liquid assets might seem meagre, it will be enforced on top of $600m in refunds and reimbursements the airline had previously agreed to. 

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Going forward, Southwest has been ordered to reserve $90m to deliver $75 vouchers to passengers delayed by more than 3 hours. 

“We’re pleased to have reached this consumer-friendly settlement, which includes a new, industry-leading policy to compensate Customers during significant delays and cancellations,” the airline said.