Southwest Airlines continues to cancel flights as the New Year holiday approaches

(CNN) — Air travelers in the U.S. hoping for clear skies on Tuesday after a disastrous week of weather-related flight cancellations and delays will have to wait a few more days — especially if they’re flying Southwest Airlines.

Just over 3,000 flights within, into or out of the United States have already been canceled for Tuesday at 2:45 p.m. ET, according to flight tracking website FlightAware.

Of those canceled flights, nearly 2,600 were from Southwest, nearly two-thirds of all Southwest flights for Tuesday. In contrast, Alaska Airlines had only 9% of its flights cancelled, and United Airlines had only 2%.

Airports most affected by Tuesday’s cancellations are Denver International, followed by Chicago Midway International, Baltimore/Washington International, Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas, Dallas Love Field and Nashville International.

There were more than 4,100 delays as of 2:45 PM ET Tuesday.

Tuesday’s cancellations follow a full day of post-Christmas travel chaos, with 3,989 flights canceled on Monday – 2,909 of those being Southwest flights. And Southwest’s Christmas struggles come during a year of trouble for the airline industry. During the summer, nearly a quarter of American flights were delayed and thousands were canceled.

Southwest: Expect several days of cancellations

Southwest is warning that this week’s cancellations and delays are expected to continue for several days, with representatives saying the Dallas-based airline plans to dial back its flight schedule to get operations back on track.

Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan told The Wall Street Journal that the company plans to operate just over a third of its schedule in the coming days to give itself the ability for crews to get into the right positions.

According to WSJ.com, Jordan added that the reduced schedule could be extended.

“We had a tough day today. In all likelihood, we’ll have another tough day tomorrow as we work our way out of this,” Jordan said in an interview Monday night with WSJ.com.

“This is the biggest event I’ve ever seen.”

Multiply problems

Southwest was particularly hard hit due to a cascade of problems.

The storm hit two of their biggest hubs – Chicago and Denver – at a time when Covid and other winter ailments stretched staffing lists. Southwest’s aggressive schedule and underinvestment have also been blamed.

The winter storm that swept across the country was ill-timed for travelers who had started to push Christmas week flying numbers back towards pre-pandemic levels.

On Christmas Day, 3,178 flights were canceled and 6,870 were delayed, according to FlightAware.

On Christmas Eve, a total of 3,487 flights were cancelled, according to FlightAware.

Friday was the worst day in this streak with 5,934 cancellations, while Thursday saw almost 2,700 cancellations.

What can stranded passengers do?

At the Southwest ticket counter at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Tuesday morning, long lines were already forming as travelers waited to try to rebook flights or make connections.

And at Chicago’s Midway International, large piles of unclaimed bags piled up as passengers struggled to retrieve their bags. There were similar scenes at other airports, including Harry Reid in Las Vegas and William P. Hobby Airport in Houston.

Passenger Trisha Jones told CNN at the Atlanta airport that she and her partner had been traveling for five days trying to get home to Wichita, Kansas, after disembarking from a cruise in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

After her flight was canceled, she stayed with relatives, then was diverted to Atlanta to catch a connecting flight.

“We were lucky, because we were in Fort Lauderdale — my family lives in the Tampa Bay area, so we were able to rent a car to visit my family for Christmas,” Jones said. “We have seen many families sleeping on the floor and it breaks my heart.”

Calls made Monday afternoon by CNN to Southwest’s customer service did not go through, so customers could not even get in line to speak with a representative. Southwest told CNN it is “fully staffed to respond to calls.”

Travelers wait at a Southwest Airlines baggage counter to claim their bags after canceled flights at Los Angeles International Airport, Monday, Dec. 26, 2022, in Los Angeles.

Travelers wait at a Southwest Airlines baggage counter to claim their bags after canceled flights at Los Angeles International Airport, Monday, Dec. 26, 2022, in Los Angeles.

Eugene Garcia/AP

The airline also says, “those whose flights have been canceled can request a full refund or receive a non-expiring flight credit.”

If you’ve been stuck and your efforts to reach a customer service agent are going nowhere, the founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights suggests trying an international number.

“The main phone line for US airlines will be clogged with other passengers being rebooked. To get through to an agent quickly, call one of the airline’s dozens of international offices,” Scott Keyes said.

“Agents can handle your reservation just like US-based ones can, but there’s almost no wait time to get through.”

Southwest spokesperson: “Take care of yourself … take care of your receipts”

Scott’s Cheap Flights spokesperson Katy Nastro shares her tips on what to do if your flight is delayed or canceled.

A Southwest Airlines spokesperson said the recent winter storm is to blame for the cascade of thousands of flight cancellations on Monday and advanced cancellations on Tuesday.

“As the storm continued to push across the country, it continued to affect many of our larger stations, and so the cancellations just piled up one by one to 100 to 150 to 1,000,” Jay McVay said at a press conference at Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport Monday evening.

“With these cancellations and as a result, we end up with flight crews and aircraft that are misplaced and not in the cities they need to be in to continue to operate our business.”

McVay said the company’s first priority right now is safety. “We want to make sure that we operate these flights safely and that we have the flight crews that have legal and sufficient time to conduct these flights,” he said.

“We will do whatever we need to do to correct the challenges we’ve had right now,” he said, including “hotels, ride assistance, vans … rental cars to try to make sure these people get home as quickly as possible .”

He promised that all customers, including those who had already left the airport or made alternative arrangements on their own, would also be taken care of.

“If you’ve already left, take care of yourself, do what you need to do for your family, take care of your receipts,” McVay continued. – We must ensure that they are taken care of, that is not a question.

An announcement in the terminal before the press conference apologized to customers, saying the next available SWA seats are Saturday, December 31 and beyond. The agent said Southwest would provide buses to hotels in the area and assured that “we will have sufficient rooms for all customers affected by this disruption.”

American authorities ‘concerned’ by cancellations

The US Department of Transportation issued a statement about Monday’s massive Southwest Airlines flight cancellations, saying the agency is “concerned.”

“USDOT is concerned about Southwest’s unacceptable frequency of cancellations and delays and reports of a lack of prompt customer service. The department will investigate whether cancellations were controllable and whether Southwest is adhering to its customer service plan,” the agency tweeted.

Speaking to CNN on Tuesday, the vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, Capt. Mike Santoro, said the problems facing Southwest were the worst disruptions he had experienced in 16 years at the airline.

He described last week’s storm as a catalyst that helped trigger major technical problems.

“What went wrong is that our planning software IT infrastructure is massively out of date,” he said. “It cannot handle the number of pilots, flight attendants that we have in the system, with our complex route network.

“We don’t have the normal hub that the other major airlines have. We fly a point-to-point network that can put our crews in the wrong places, without planes.”

He added: “It’s frustrating for the pilots, flight attendants and especially our passengers. We’re tired of apologizing for Southwest, the pilots of the airline, our hearts go out to all the passengers, they really do.”

Santoro, who said his union had been pressing the airline for some time to address its structural problems, complained that pilots had also been affected by the current disruption.

“We have over 10,000 pilots, not all flying at the same time, but imagine everyone being in the wrong city, with no hotel assignment, trying to find a hotel?”

In other developments

• In hard-hit western New York, Buffalo International Airport said in its latest tweet that it does not plan to resume passenger flights until 11 a.m. ET Wednesday, pushing back the expected reopening by another 24 hours later than previously expected.
• Greyhound, the largest provider of intercity bus service, issued a service alert Tuesday morning that many of its routes in the upper northeast region of the country continued to be disrupted until further notice due to winter weather. Affected cities include Buffalo, Cleveland and Syracuse.

CNN’s Andi Babineau, Adrienne Broaddus, Dave Alsap, Nick Valencia, David Goldman, Leslie Perrot, Carlos Suarez and Ross Levitt contributed to this story.

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