Is this enough compensation? Southwest confiscates tickets, offers “deal” to get family home

Ray Sandoval paid $650 for his wife and two young daughters to fly from Sacramento to New York on Southwest Airlines.

No, that’s not a typo. For just $150 per person, plus a $50 service fee, the Sandovals made it all the way to Baltimore before Southwest stopped them.

Turns out their fare was too good to be true. They were using a Buddy Pass they’d bought from a Southwest employee, which was technically a no-no. But Sandoval had no way of knowing that.

Southwest offered to fly the family back to California for a discounted fare of $1,016, even as two representatives assured him he’d done “nothing wrong.” Is that enough compensation?

You might be wondering how the Sandovals got caught. Well, Buddy Passes allow you to fly on a standby basis, and technically you’re considered a “nonrevenue” passenger.

When the Sandovals kept getting bumped from their flights, they had an angry confrontation with a Southwest agent in which she insisted they get out of her way so she could take care of “paying customers” and they insisted on being treated with courtesy, because they were paying customers. When the agent saw the Buddy Passes, she suspected foul play.

“I am confiscating these four tickets,” he was told.

The agent added,

You will have to buy new tickets to the West Coast if you want to get home. I will hold four seats, at a purchase price of $254 each, a real deal, on a plane which leaves tomorrow morning.

You have until midnight tonight to decide what you want to do. That’s all I can do for you. But, let me reassure you, once again, you have done absolutely nothing wrong, Mr. and Mrs. Sandoval. This is not your fault.

She told the family they were victims of a larger scheme among some Southwest employees.

We have the name of the employee who sold these to you right on the ticket. Someone will probably lose their job. This is a rampant problem here at Southwest. You are not the first to be victimized by a Southwest employee selling these Standby/Buddy Pass tickets. It is a huge problem here.

Sandoval sees things differently. In his view, he had been dealing with Southwest all along, even when he bought the Buddy Pass from a rogue employee. Southwest had taken his money, then confiscated his ticket and charged him again for the same flight.

A Southwest employee assured him the airline was bending over to accommodate him by offering a lower fare for his return flight, and urged him to “let it go.”

But he can’t.

“How can an airline like Southwest treat its customers so unprofessionally?” he asks. “How can Southwest confiscate tickets purchased by a customer?”

Southwest responds

I suggested Sandoval send a brief, polite email to a manager at Southwest, explaining his position.

Here’s how it replied:

Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you recently by telephone about your travel using Southwest Airlines Buddy Passes.

While we can certainly understand your frustration regarding the situation, as I explained to you on the telephone, it is a violation of Company policy for an Employee to sell their Buddy Passes.

The terms of usage indicate (on the reverse side of each Buddy Pass) that the pass is the property of Southwest Airlines and must be surrendered upon request. In this instance, once we become aware that the Buddy Passes being presented for travel were purchased, our Agent confiscated the tickets and further travel would not be permitted using them.

When you requested the chance to purchase a ticket in Baltimore, the only option for purchase for immediate travel was at our Anytime Fare.

As a courtesy to you and your family, our Employee offered you a discounted fare which was no longer available. Since I was not present, I am unable to confirm what pricing was mentioned, but you were ultimately charged $153.00 less per person, or $612.00 total, than our full Anytime Fare. We are unable to do anything further to reduce the amount you paid to return home.

Nevertheless, I regret that you were disappointed with the Customer Service provided by our Employees in Baltimore. We expect our Employees to be helpful, kind and compassionate to all Customers, regardless of what they paid (or did not pay) for a ticket.

Again, we apologize if you are disappointed in us. To be quite honest, pass holders assume all risks associated with the use of the pass. Whether flying again as a nonrevenue pass holder or as a fare-paying Customer, it would be our pleasure to welcome you onboard one of our flights soon.

In other words, sorry — but we’ve done enough.

What do you think?

A quick poll of more than 500 readers this morning found that a slim majority (55 percent) believe Southwest has done enough.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • ChristCadet99

    This is Truly Rediculous.  If the passengers had no prior knowledge then they should not be penalized by having to pay more for the fare.  What if they have no more money and now they are stranded?  The employee who sold the tickets should be penalized or dealt with accordingly.  If I were to rewrite the policy here is what I would do.  If an employee was caught fraudulently selling buddy passes, and the passengers were unaware’s then I would confiscate the buddy passes, but then I would immediatly issue the tickets neccessary for the passengers to get where they needed to go for free.  Then I would turn around and charge the Bill to the employee that knowingly did it.   I think the scam would stop quick fast and in a hurry and customer relations would remain in good standing.   First time offence, the employee is charged the cost of the tickets out of their pay with a warning.  Second offence the employee pays for full fare price for all passengers plus the amount they made off those tickets.  3rd offense Employee pays for the cost of the tickets and is subject to termination.  If the employee refuses to pay or will not work out a payment plan with financial department then they are subject to termination.  I wouldn’t worry much as to whether the customers had prior knowledge or not because if you take care of it at the employee level then customer relations remain good, the company dosn’t have extra headace’s and the employees will see the example and wont offer it to the customer’s anyway’s.  Problem solved.

  • Kevkev12

    This shows that American is lost their moral value now. It means people thinks that it is okay to buy stolen items as long as cheap. No guilty and no shame at all. If somebody sells something below market price, there should be something fishy. Especially this case, I don’t think those tickets are valid.

  • y_p_w

    Here’s a photo of a set that someone tried to sell in 2008:

  • y_p_w

    I’m not sure why I’m revisiting such an old article except that it came up near the top in the “you might like” section.

    I remember flying standby before. I had a relative who was a travel agent and could get us some of those from the occasional ticket agent.  They were never resold, but we knew we were flying standby and never complained.  It always meant getting to the airport early and fortunately we never got bumped.  Typically if the flight was nowhere near being full, we got a seat assignment immediately.

    I just recently flew Southwest, and I got to the airport a little bit later than I would have normally hoped to be there.  I took the chance to use the facilities since the “A” group was boarding and I was in the “C” group.  By the time I back to the line, there were ample warnings that the flight was full and that any ticketed passenger who didn’t get in line 10 minutes before the scheduled departure would get bumped off in favor of a standby passenger.  There was a line of standby passengers who were probably hoping that some poor schmuck made a mistake.

  • vmacd

    The interesting comment here is the employee who said this is a “rampant problem” at Southwest.  It’s one thing for someone to be scammed by a rogue employee, it’s another for a company not to be accountable for transgressions by a number of employees. If this is indeed a rampant problem at SW and they are not doing all they can to rectify the problem and protect their customers, then they should be held accountable, not the passengers.

  • ajaynejr

    Regrettably tickets purchased from unofficial sources can turn out to be bogus or unusable. Even Disney confiscates tickets that it considers improperly obtained (I came to this page from a Christopher Elliott page entitled “Even Disney makes mistakes”).

    When the tickets are found to ge in violation of Disney’s rules, the guest is stuck with buying new tickets. The most common ticket violation attempted at Disney is use of a ticket that someone else used; tickets are not transferable.

    And car rental companies have been known to dishonor a reservation booked under a “code” that the renter was not eligible for. The renter needs to be able show proof such as the brochure found in a credit card bill, or a page from the Entertainment Book.

  • The Pilot

    I am a former airline employee, I have sympathy for these people. However what they were offered was WAY MORE than should have been. As a former pilot for a major air carrier, I was well aware of these rules and restrictions. Northwest Airlines had a problem with some employees in Asia selling passes and ruined the whole buddy pass thing so you had to fly with the buddy. Sad.

    My legal expertise? I went to law school afterward.

    You think because you buy a stolen car the car is yours? Does the owner have to give your money back?

    Think again.

    They deserve nothing.

    And I doubt they didn’t know they purchased employee passes..

    The woman just didn’t know or didn’t take it to heart how passriders have to behave when traveling “non-rev”.

    At most, the only “beef” they have is with the Southwest employee.

  • Allie

    Though the situation does dictate that the family had violated their pass rules, how are the recipients supposed to know that they are in violation. I was treated the exact same way in the Oklahoma City airport and told I wasn’t important because I didn’t pay. It was a gifted ticket, which is allowed, but if Southwest says they care about their customers, they should realize the way they treat any customer, negatively or positively, reflects their business. In this case it was poorly. Southwest may not owe non-revenue passengers a flight, but they sure as heck owe people common decency.

  • Angry Customer

    My experience with Buddy Passes had been positive until my flight out of the Oklahoma City Airport. I had arrived for a 6:30 am flight at 4:30 am to ensure that I was the first passenger on the standby list. Upon entering the airport, there were about thirty others in front waiting to check in. After a 30 minute delay of the staff opening the ticketing counters late, the groups in front were beginning to get frustrated. The SW ticket agents finally arrived and began the check-in process. After getting to the booth, I was told that my reservation for a standby seat had not been saved, although a reservation specialist had confirmed my seat for the flight. I tried to reserve a seat at the counter but was physically moved to the side by the supervisor and told to, “wait my turn so all of the real paying customers could be attended to first”. I didn’t think much of the comment at first and waited for 20 minutes without any assistance. As the time passed, more and more “paying” passengers arrived and were allowed to check-in before me. The same supervisor told me to re-enter the line behind 50 new customers. I had already been waiting to check-in for an hour and continued to be pushed back to the end of the line. Finally, I politely tapped the supervisor on the shoulder and asked him, “Why is it that every other customer gets to go in front of me when I have been waiting an hour?” The supervisor snapped at me and said “who do you think you are thinking you deserve priority when you paid nothing for that Buddy Pass?” Shocked at his response I politely yet assertively said “excuse me sir?”. Upon saying that, the man approached me, told me that he was confiscating my ticket on the grounds that I had given him “lip”. I am a 20 year old woman and by no means should a customer service representative ever consider the questions of a customer “sass” or “lip”. That is the terminology you use when referring to a child, not an adult, as I am. I told the man “There is no reason for you to confiscate my ticket, I was simply asking a question”. He informed me that I had “violated the terms of the ticket and that authorized him to take the pass”. Not only did not inform me of any way I had broken the rules of the pass, but he proceded to rip the ticket from my hand and walk away saying “if you want to talk to me, you can step to the side and not take that tone with me”. Now in tears, and again shocked, I immediately called my mother and asked what I could do. I went to the supervisor with my mother on speakerphone listening to the whole conversation, as he proceeded to attempt to discipline me for actions HE accused me of. My mother was appalled and tried to reason with the supervisor by asking his name and employee number, a request he rejected. He basically chewed me out saying that I was an entitled freeloader who should expect no decent treatment because of my non-revenue status. I told him plainly, “is this your idea of quality customer service, because it is not, in any way appropriate.” He responded with “Oh so you think YOU are going to tell me what good customer service is?” and walked away and threatened to call airport security on me if I didn’t leave the airport immediately. As I began to walk out in tears, humiliated in front of hundreds of other passengers, he told me “if you want to get your ticket back, get your father on the phone and he can talk directly to me”. Again, this is a disgustingly inappropriate demand for an adult woman. I am a capable adult and should not have to respond to a threat from an employee to “tell on me” to my parents. For all he knows, I could be on a standby flight to attend his funeral! Needing a flight back, I complied and called my father. He called the supervisors direct line and kept me on as a silent conference call so I could hear what lies the man passed along to my father. The conversation began with “this is the supervisor at OKC airport and we have your daughter here and there’s no real concern, she will be flying with us today.” Upon hearing that, it became very apparent that not only had I not done anything wrong, but this employee was abusing his position to intimidate and harass a customer. After careful review of Southwest’s customer treatment policies, I discovered that it is in their bylaws to never use a position of authority to intimidate or dismiss clients. This blatant bullying almost stopped me from making my flight home, but also came about for no apparent reason. I was utterly appalled at how I was treated and while walking through security, in tears, the TSA agent asked me if I was alright. I told him that a Southwest employee had harassed me at the ticket counter. Without hesitation, he said “I bet you’re talking about Greg, the supervisor, right?”. He mentioned how he had heard several complaints about his customer service and his history with being rude to customers. After landing home, I called Customer Service in Dallas to report the incident to higher officials. They told me that “because I was a non-revenue passenger, anything I wanted to report would jeopardize the job of the employee who had given me the ticket”. I was gifted the ticket by my aunt who works for southwest and is allowed to purchase the tickets for companion flyers. I asked the customer service assistant what I could do, and he basically told me nothing unless I wanted to have “negative consequences” for my aunt, meaning termination. I am EXTREMELY disappointed in how the customer service center responded because they essentially supported the actions of a verbally abusive employee and threatened my aunt’s employment for not keeping my mouth shut about the incident. I postulated the situation that if I were to be physically harassed or assaulted if the company would do anything about the situation. To my surprise, the man responded, “he didn’t physically assault you, so let’s not even go into what-ifs”. I told him that what he did to me was publicly humiliate me and verbally assaulted me”, and he said, “if you would like to file a report, I should remember that my aunt’s employment could be jeopardized.” In summary, I was not in violation of any of the terms of the ticket, was verbally assaulted, and degraded by a Southwest employee based on the status of my valid flyer’s coupon, and was still told by a customer service expert that I was wrong.