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Stranded passengers have some rights under federal law

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — An expert on the airline industry on Friday said Southwest Airlines’ liability will depend on how closely it follows its customer service plan.

The Texas-based budget carrier’s operations returned to normal on Friday after days of cancelations that followed last week’s winter storm. On Dec. 28, 59 percent of Southwest’s flights nationwide were canceled, compared to three percent among other major carriers. Jeff Prince, a professor of business economics at the IU Kelley School of Business who studies airline performance, said airlines’ complex scheduling and systems make them vulnerable to cascading failures, as happened last week.

“Airlines are very complicated networks and even sophisticated systems can have a snowball effect where things break down in one area and you can just have this ripple effect,” he said.

Prince said rules concerning passengers’ rights are limited. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, airlines must provide refunds for canceled flights to any passengers who don’t rebook. Passengers who experience significant delays can receive some compensation as well, though there is no rule for what counts as a significant delay. If your luggage is lost, the airline must compensate you for its contents. If it is delayed, the airline must compensate you for incidental costs incurred during that time. In both cases, the maximum reimbursement amount for domestic flights is $3,800.

On Thursday, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg wrote a letter to Southwest Airlines CEO Robert Jordan urging him to adhere to the promises the company had made, such as providing hotels for passengers, providing reimbursement for alternative transportation and reuniting passengers with lost luggage. Prince said there are few federal regulations for what customer service airlines must provide but there are requirements that airlines follow through on whatever commitments they make. He said whether you are entitled to compensation depends on how well the company tried to follow its plan.

“It’s always good to ask yourself, from what you were told by the company, how does what happened line up with that?” he said. “If you can honestly say to yourself, this was an unfortunate situation but the airline reasonably adhered to its customer service plan, those are the breaks.”

Prince said to be ready for ticket prices to remain high for a while as rebooked passengers compete with regular airline traffic. He said a surge in last-minute bookings always spikes prices. As for lost luggage, he said to keep checking back with the airline to make sure it is returned to you.