Southwest Airlines disruption leaves customers stranded, call centers flooded

(CNN) — Last week’s winter travel mess hangs like a vicious hangover into this week — and the headache is of migraine proportions for Southwest Airlines, its CEO Bob Jordan, airline employees and most of all its frustrated passengers on Monday.

More than 3,700 flights within, into or out of the United States had already been canceled by 6 p.m. ET Monday, according to flight tracking website FlightAware, while more than 6,700 flights were delayed.

But Southwest accounts for a huge share of these. None of the other US airlines have canceled nearly as many flights or as much of the schedule as Southwest.

The Dallas-based airline had canceled more than two-thirds of its flights — close to 2,800 in total — as of 6 p.m. Monday, according to FlightAware.

At one point, it canceled around 300 flights in the space of half an hour on Monday afternoon.

CEO: “Many problems in operations”

On Christmas Eve, ahead of Monday’s meltdown, Jordan told employees that the airline is having “a lot of operational issues right now.”

CNN was provided a transcript of the message to Southwest employees by an aviation source.

Jordan told staff: “Part of what we’re suffering is a lack of tools. We’ve talked a lot about modernizing the operation, and the need to do that.

On social media, customers complain loudly about long queues to speak to representatives, problems with lost bags and excessively long wait times or busy signals on the airline’s customer service telephone lines.

Customers wait to rebook their Southwest Airlines flight at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Monday.

Customers wait to rebook their Southwest Airlines flight at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Monday.

CNN

CNN’s Carlos Suarez spoke to frustrated passengers in line at the Southwest ticket counter at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Monday.

He has reported that around 150 customers waited in a long line at one point to reorder, with the line snaking around the back of the ticket counter.

“Disturbances in our network”

Southwest responded to the massive cancellations in an email Monday afternoon:

“With consecutive days of extreme winter weather across our network behind us, ongoing challenges are impacting our customers and employees in a significant way that is unacceptable,” the statement said.

We work with security at the forefront to quickly resolve extensive disruptions. … On the other side of this, we will work to make things right for those we have failed, including our employees.”

In an earlier statement to CNN on Monday, Southwest Airlines said it was “experiencing disruptions across our network as a result of (the winter storm’s) lingering effects on the entirety of our operations.”

Some of the airports seeing the biggest problems are Denver, Las Vegas, Chicago Midway, Baltimore/Washington, Dallas Love Field and Phoenix Sky Harbor.

Customers faced long lines at the Southwest counters on Monday at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

Customers faced long lines at the Southwest counters on Monday at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

WRAL

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.”

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

ONE chirping of Southwest directing customers to self-service options, received more than 1,000 responses — many of them angry — around 6 p.m. ET.

One of the responses read, in part: “Stop blaming the WEATHER! Had to buy a first class ticket on another airline but it TOOK OFF ON TIME! You still have our luggage with meds inside! Can’t get through on the phone!”

Ripple effects at Southwest

In his Sunday night message to employees, Jordan said, “We need to be able to produce solutions faster.” He said the airline is “committed to and invested in” improving its systems.

The president of the union representing Southwest’s flight attendants told CNN’s Pamela Brown in an on-air interview Monday that these systems have left their members stranded.

“The phone system the company uses is simply not working. They are simply not staffed with enough manpower to provide scheduling changes to the flight attendants and it has created a ripple effect that is creating chaos across the nation,” Lyn Montgomery, president of TWU Local 556, told CNN.

She said some flight attendants had to sleep in airports as a result.

Treatment of flight crew called ‘despicable’

Montgomery expressed outrage on behalf of workers and customers late Monday afternoon in a news release.

“The way Southwest Airlines has treated its flight crews can only be described as ‘despicable,'” Montgomery said. “We know the demands of vacation travel. We know winter storms. And believe me, we know how to step up and put in long hours when called upon; we’re flight attendants.

“But at this point, the many years of management failure, despite many unions’ demands to modernize, have left flight attendants tired, stranded, hungry and cold – at Christmas! This affects lives and threatens the safety of everyone.”

“The company’s mistakes happen year-round, but are particularly egregious at Christmas,” Montgomery said. “Our customers struggled just like our thousands of flight attendants did.”

Kathleen Bangs, a spokesperson for FlightAware, said in an on-air interview that Southwest’s schedule includes shorter flights with tighter processing times that are causing some of the problems. “These processing times mess things up,” Bangs said.

CNN has reached out to the airline for comment on Jordan’s video message.

What can stranded passengers do?

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.”

Any relief in sight?

CNN meteorologist Tom Sater details the latest forecast as a deadly winter storm continues to blast much of the US with brutal winter weather.

It may be next week before this is completely in place.

“With more than 10,000 flight cancellations in the past week, it takes time for airlines to work through and accommodate the backlog of travelers,” Keyes told CNN Travel in an email.

“Although it will depend on the weather forecast (which looks promising for much of the country) and how many travelers end up canceling their holiday plans, I expect that by next week things will have largely returned to normal,” Keyes said.

And why do so many people have problems rebooking?

“A complicating factor for people hoping to be re-accommodated is the fact that there are so few seats available this season,” Keyes said.

“That’s both because Christmas and New Year are one of the most popular times of the year to travel, and because the number of flights on the schedule this year is still down 15-20%, making the challenge even steeper for those who need to be rebooked .”

Buffalo is still rolling

Meanwhile, in hard-hit western New York, Buffalo International Airport said in its latest tweet that it plans to resume passenger flights at 11 a.m. ET Tuesday.

The temperature at the airport was 19 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 7 Celsius) around 4 p.m. ET, with light snow falling on top of the massive amounts the area has already seen.

And it is not just the airport that is affected there. Road traffic remained treacherous due to extreme winter conditions.

In New York state’s western Erie County, emergency driving restrictions were lifted in some communities but remained in place in Buffalo, County Executive Mark Poloncarz said Monday.

“The city of Buffalo is impassable in most areas, while the power grid may have a lane or two open to emergency traffic, most secondary as well as side streets have not been affected yet,” Poloncarz said.

He adds that the cleared main roads are primarily for the use of life-saving measures to open up areas around hospitals and nursing homes.

A tough last week

A winter storm sweeping across the US was ill-timed for travelers who had started to push Christmas week flying numbers back towards pre-pandemic levels.

On Christmas Day, there were 3,178 flights canceled and 6,870 flights 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.

This megablast of wintry weather across the eastern two-thirds of the nation is forecast to slowly moderate this week.

CNN’s Ross Levitt, Rebekah Reiss, Chris Boyette and Artemis Moshtaghian contributed to this story.

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