Southwest loophole: Savvy travelers profited from airline's repeated 737 Max flight changes
For California frequent flyer Carlos Burgos, the nearly yearlong string of schedule changes has been a bonanza, allowing him to save money and time on multiple Southwest flights.
"It's been the best thing in the world,'' he said.
Burgos and other savvy travelers have taken advantage of Southwest's generous flight-change policy during each Max flight schedule change. The plane has been grounded since March 2019 following two fatal crashes, on Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines, in five months that killed 346 people.
United and American have rebooked affected travelers on other flights for free or allowed them to make changes without penalty during the Max crisis. But Southwest's system has been more liberal, enabling any traveler to change any flight in the covered travel period for a short window (usually a few days) each time Max flight changes were announced.
Southwest never charges a fee to change a ticket, but passengers do have to pay any fare difference between the original flight and the new flight, which can make flight changes pricey or prohibitive.
With the fare difference broadly waived each time Max flight changes were announced, Burgos and other travelers changed existing flights to better times, dates or even eligible nearby airports and/or booked cheap new flights and immediately changed them to pricier flights without paying more.
Take a trip to Las Vegas Burgos booked last week after Southwest announced it was delaying the plane's return from early June to until mid-August, a move that impacted nearly 400 daily summer flights.
Burgoswasn't affected by the schedule change. But the day of the announcement he booked a cheap flight from Las Vegas to Los Angeles International Airport on Saturday, July 4, because it was only $54.
He switched to Sunday, July 5, his preferred return date, and to John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, his preferred airport because it's close to his house. The going one-way fares for travel that day into the airport, which has less airline competition than LAX: $169 to $227 depending on the time, more than triple the price he paid. His bill for the flight change: $0.
He did a similar switch on the flight to Las Vegas, booking a cheap early morning flight from Los Angeles to Las Vegas on July 2 and moving it to a later, pricier departure out of Orange County.
Burgos saved big, too, on a post-Christmas trip to Hawaii after Southwest removed the Max from its schedule through the busy holiday season last summer.He booked cheap tickets on off-peak days (Dec. 6 and Jan. 15) and immediately changed them to peak days, Dec. 26 and Jan. 5, without paying extra. His estimated savings: $600.
And those are just some of the trips he took due to the generous change policy. Burgos said the cheap tickets spurred him to book several weekend trips he wasn't otherwise planning, including trips this spring to Portland, Oregon; Seattle; Boise, Idaho; and the Grand Canyon via Las Vegas, plus a return trip to Hawaii.
Except for his twin brother, his family still doesn't understand how he pulled it off.
"This is not easy,'' he said.
Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz said the airline decided to institute a broad travel waiver because it offers the most convenience and flexibility for travelers affected by the Max changes.
"While it’s true that other customers could benefit by making changes, it’s just not something we’re seeing much of,'' he said.
Mainz said it would be difficult for passengers to predict when Southwest was going to do a schedule change related to the Max.
The airline did not broadcast the change free-for-all, of course, but savvy travelers including Burgos caught on early and started sharing strategies and free-change wins in the Southwest forum on frequent flyer website FlyerTalk several weeks after the grounding.
With repeated schedule changes as the grounding dragged on, and some bloggers sharing tips about the free changes from the forum, many openly wondered whether Southwest would tighten the broad change policy.
Avid users started talking in general terms about the free changes, and some advised others not to post about it.
But that didn't stop travelers from discussing the latest round of free changes last week when Southwest delayed the plane's return from early June to Aug. 10.
Burgos and others did notice, though, that fares seemed higher than usual on flights covered by the latest waiver, making the loophole less lucrative on some routes.
"Southwest knows that people are abusing this and increased the minimum price during the free change window so they don't take as much of a loss,'' one poster on FlyerTalk said.
The big question now is whether that will be the last Max schedule change, and thus the end of free changes altogether.
Boeing, under new leadership, has said it expects the plane to be ungrounded by regulators by mid-2020. Southwest has said it will take at least a couple months after that to get the plane back into commercial service, which is why it pushed the planned return into August. United has removed the plane from its schedule until Labor Day weekend, American through Aug. 17.
Southwest isn't yet selling tickets beyond Aug. 10 and doesn't plan to do so until March 12, so there is no need for another schedule change in the near future.