The US Department of Transportation will examine thousands of flight cancellations by Southwest Airlines over the holiday weekend, a massive disruption which left thousands of holiday travelers grounded, even in areas of the country not suffering from winter storms.
In a tweet on Tuesday, Joe Biden said: “Thousands of flights nationwide have been canceled around the holidays. Our administration is working to ensure airlines are held accountable.”
Biden directed affected travelers to a transportation department website which outlines airlines’ obligations to consumers.
While most major US carriers were hit by cancellations caused by a major winter storm, Southwest was particularly hard hit. Travelers and reporters across the country described chaos at local airports, with hours-long lines, delays stretching into multiple days, baggage areas overflowing with stranded luggage, and Southwest airline agents in tears after dealing with furious passengers.
Southwest cancellations caused chaos even in regions with balmy holiday temperatures, with reports of hundreds of flights cancelled or delayed across southern California, particularly in Los Angeles and in San Diego, where local news outlets reported that every Southwest flight out of the airport had been cancelled on Monday night.
One viral video posted to TikTok from the San Diego airport described the scene as “WILDDD” and said there was an “ eight-hour line to speak to Southwest attendants”.
Between Thursday and Monday, the Dallas-based airline canceled about 8,000 flights nationwide, according to the website FlightAware. Even after the storm passed in most of the US, disruptions appeared to briefly intensify. Southwest cancelled more than 70% of flights on Monday and more than 60% on Tuesday, and warned that just over a third of its schedule would run in the coming days.
The Department of Transportation said that the rate of cancellations was “disproportionate and unacceptable”. Other carriers, including American, United, Delta and JetBlue, reported cancellation rates between zero and 2% on Tuesday, after recording 20% of flights scrubbed over the weekend.
Of the approximately 2,950 flight cancellations in the US by midday Tuesday, 2,549 were called off by Southwest.
Some Southwest customers said the company’s app and website were not functioning during the crisis, forcing them to line up in person to reschedule their flights.
“The only way to get re-booked was to go to the airport and speak to a human,” Maya Polon told the Los Angeles Times, describing an hours-long wait to get a cancelled Sunday flight rescheduled to Monday from Burbank airport, near Los Angeles. Polon said some of her fellow passengers could not get rebooked until Wednesday.
“It honestly feels like I’m on a bad episode of the Amazing Race,” another TikTok user posted, in a series of videos describing the Southwest-related chaos at a Houston airport, and her eventual drive home in a rental car from Houston to Los Angeles, a distance of more than 1,500 miles.
The company’s communications problems compounded the cancellations, with some frustrated passengers posting to Twitter under the hashtag #southwestStoleChristmas.
In a statement, the transport workers union that represents Southwest’s flight attendants called the company’s treatment of its own flight crews “despicable” and said that “many years of failure by management”, including delays in upgrading technology systems, was to blame for the nationwide failures, not the storm conditions alone.
Thousands of Southwest Airlines employees were also stranded across the country, the TWI Local 556 statement said, “some forced to sleep on cots in airports, some in hotels without power or water, and far too many working long hours well past acceptable duty days”.
A local television station in Denver interviewed a Southwest Airlines customer on Tuesday who said he had been sleeping on the floor of Denver International airport since Saturday, and that he had been rebooked on a flight for this coming Saturday, meaning he had another four days of living in the airport ahead of him.
Unlike other airlines that operate directly to and from hub airports, Southwest tends to operate a point-to-point service, meaning that when one flight is disrupted, there may not be spare aircraft and crews to pick up the route, leading to disruptions through the scheduling chain.
“We have crews stuck and scheduling doesn’t know where they are,” Casey Murray, head of the union that represents Southwest’s pilots, told the Wall Street Journal on Sunday.
Analysts warned that Southwest could lose 3% to 5% from its quarterly earnings. But the cost to its reputation could be worse. The airline has been hit disproportionally hard during previous extreme weather events. Shares were down more than 5% on Monday.
“This is going to be one of the most, if not the most, damaging events to Southwest’s brand in its 50-year operating history,” airline analyst Henry Harteveldt told the San Diego Union-Tribune.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Monday, the Southwest chief executive, Bob Jordan, called the storm “the largest-scale event that I’ve ever seen”.
The carrier, which serves Buffalo, New York, the region worst-hit by the storm, apologized, saying “continuing challenges are impacting our customers and employees in a significant way that is unacceptable”.
Jordan said part of the problem could be traced to outdated scheduling software that is in the process of being updated.
“Part of what we’re suffering is a lack of tools,” he said.
Like many airlines, Southwest had dismissed staff during the Covid pandemic, only to find itself scrambling to rehire when strong demand returned. At the same time, it expanded its service to 18 new cities.
Southwest said it would take steps to cover reasonable travel costs including hotels, rental cars and tickets on other airlines. Ryan Green, the chief commercial officer, said customers whose flights were canceled as the airline recovered would be entitled to refunds.
Teresa Murray of the PIRG consumer watchdog network said that while Christmas weekend travel was likely to be disrupted by the winter storm, new consumer protections are needed.
“Unreliable airline travel has been an ongoing nightmare for more than two and a half years”, Murray said. “While the awful weather isn’t anyone’s fault, the way travelers were treated and accommodated – or not – sits squarely on the shoulders of most of the airlines.”
The Associated Press contributed reporting