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Southwest Changes Controversial Contract Language

Kudos to Southwest.

Just a week ago, this blog and other news outlets reported on a change to Southwest's contract of carriage, in which the airline defined force majeure events as including "mechanical difficulties." Airlines are not typically liable for cancellations relating to force majeure circumstances, and therefore it seemed the airline was absolving itself of responsibility for problems with its planes.

Now the airline has removed the offending text and replaced it with clearer language: Gone is "mechanical difficulties," and in its place is a much more reasonable phrasing, "mechanical difficulties by entities other than Carrier." The new wording is similar to what you'll find in some other airlines' contracts, including JetBlue and Continental, and is perfectly fair, in my opinion. After all, if an airport employee accidentally drives a vehicle into the plane, well, that's not really Southwest's fault, is it?

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So, let me just say thanks to Southwest for clarifying its unnecessarily vague language. The airline could have just left the contract as it was, but I'm glad it didn't.

That said, I want to address part of Southwest's blog entry about this to make it perfectly clear why its contract change was an issue at Today in Travel. In its blog and elsewhere, the airline has made a big deal about the media labeling "mechanical difficulties" as an "act of God." Force majeure events include so-called acts of God, examples of which could be a meteor strike or volcanic eruption. Due to its inclusion under the force majeure heading, "mechanical difficulties" was, at times, lumped in together or mistakenly referred to as an act of God event. Southwest claims this caused confusion for its customers, and that this is why it clarified its language.

My issue with the contract had absolutely nothing to do with whether or not "mechanical difficulties" were an "act of God," and if I somehow confused people by conflating the terms, I apologize. What I cared about was the fact that Southwest's contract suddenly declared "mechanical difficulties"—a vague term that could theoretically include any type of equipment-related problem—to be beyond its responsibility, and in doing so seemed to chip away at vital consumer protections. Judging from the comments on my entry, I feel the point was taken as intended, but I think it's important to reiterate what this was always really about.

Either way, it's time to put this to bed. Southwest deserves a heap of credit for realizing its mistake and fixing it, and I am more than happy to give credit where it's due. In hindsight it's probably a small thing, especially since I believe Southwest would have gone above and beyond its contractual obligations, but small things are worth fixing, too. And in this case, Southwest's customers and fans can rest assured the airline still has their back.

A happy ending, for once.

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