Southwest Airlines has left thousands of travelers stranded at airports across the country after a winter storm tore through most of the United States before and during the holiday weekend.
While Southwest canceled over 2,600 of its flights on Tuesday, the problems are expected to extend well into this week, with data from Flight Aware indicating the airline has already canceled more than 2,400 flights on Wednesday and over 1,500 on Thursday. Southwest canceled nearly 3,000 flights Monday. Other airlines with notable flight cancellations didn’t even come close to Southwest’s total, as Spirit canceled 83 flights on Tuesday, while Alaska Airlines canceled 75.
In accordance New York Timesunlike the June 2021 computer network problems that delayed over 1,500 flights and canceled hundreds, Southwest’s delays this week have a lot to do with the way the airline has set up its flights.
Southwest uses a “point-to-point” system that has planes fly from destination to destination and pick up employees along the way. Point-to-point systems have their advantages, as they can offer direct and cheaper flights because the destinations they stop at usually have less air traffic, but flight routes can quickly fall apart when a route is cancelled.
Other airlines, such as United, use a “hub and spoke” system that has planes return to a central hub once their route is complete. This allows airlines to cancel flights to specific locations without affecting other routes, as well as have access to more aircraft and flight crews without flying them in first; something Southwest cannot do without causing a domino effect of cancellations for its other flights.
Southwest expects to operate at “one-third” of its normal schedule for several days
Southwest spokesman Jay McVay told reporters that because of the storm, “we end up with flight crews and aircraft that are out of place and not in the cities they need to be in to continue to run our operations,” which was reiterated. in a video released by CEO Bob Jordan (below).
WFAA-TV in Dallas, where Southwest is headquartered, spoke with Mark Duebner, a former director of aviation at Dallas Love Field. Duebner, who drove to his destination because of a canceled flight, told the station that while Southwest’s system is normally very efficient with no slack, “If the crew is not placed in the right place, because of another cancellation, then that flight becomes cancelled, connecting flights are cancelled. It’s just going downhill very quickly. It’s the combination of a perfect storm that you want.”
The mass cancellations mean that travelers at airports are queuing for two or more hours to rebook their new flights, which unfortunately won’t happen anytime soon. Numerous passengers report won’t get new planes until the end of this week or after the new year, forcing them to sleep on the airport floor while they wait.
Cancellations are scattered across the US, hitting major transit hubs such as Denver International Airport, Chicago Midway International and Las Vegas’ Harry Reid International Airport. Ryan Green, Southwest’s chief commercial officer, says The Wall Street Journal that the company will cover the costs of hotels, rental cars and other flights, and informs customers that they are entitled to a refund if they do not wish to rebook their flights.
The disaster prompted a response from US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who says he is following the situation “closely” and will have a statement on the matter tomorrow. On Monday, the US Department of Transportation sent out a tweet, saying it is “concerned about Southwest’s unacceptable frequency of cancellations and delays and reports of a lack of prompt customer service” and that it will “investigate whether cancellations were controllable and whether Southwest is complying with its customer service plan.” Senators Ed Markey (D-MA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) also called Southwest to compensate the passengers for the cancellations.
In a video posted on the company’s website, Southwest CEO Bob Jordan said he reached out to Buttigieg on Tuesday to talk about what the airline was doing to help customers. He also apologized to travelers and staff, and reiterated that the company’s “very complex” network was struggling with a large number of aircraft and crew being put out of service. “After days of trying to operate as much of our full schedule over a busy holiday weekend, we reached a decision point to significantly reduce our aircraft to catch up,” he said. You can see his full statement below.
In addition to cancellations due to the snowstorm, Sørvest is also struggling with staffing shortages in some places. The airline declared an operational emergency last week at the Denver airport after receiving “an unusually high number of absences.” In a leaked memo to employees, Southwest Airlines says employees will need a doctor’s note when calling in sick, and that it “will use mandatory overtime” to require employees to come to work or otherwise be fired. As noted by Denver PostSouthwest spokesman Chris Perry denied the messages were part of a coordinated effort by employees.
“We were fully staffed and prepared for the upcoming holiday weekend as the severe weather swept across the continent, where Southwest is the largest carrier in 23 of the top 25 US travel markets,” Southwest Airlines said in a statement. “As we continue to work to restore our operations, we have made the decision to continue operating a reduced schedule by flying approximately one-third of our schedule for the next few days.”
This is not the only other time Southwest has experienced major operational problems. Last October, the airline struggled with both staffing shortages and severe weather conditions, which led Southwest to cancel nearly 3,000 flights in four days. At the time, former Southwest COO Mike Van de Ven told employees that the company has “a very aggressive hiring plan” but that it’s still not “where we want to be with staffing.” Dallas Business Journal reports CEO Bob Jordan made similar remarks during an investor day presentation earlier this month, saying the company’s systems needed to be upgraded as part of a larger modernization drive to eventually operate 6,000 flights per day while employing 100,000 people.
Update Tuesday, December 27, 7:18 PM ET: Added video from Southwest CEO Bob Jordan.