Southwest once again canceled thousands of flights in the United States and came under the scrutiny of regulators

Southwest travelers at Baltimore Washington airport (Reuters) (MICHAEL MCCOY /)

southwest Airlines was responsible for about 85% of domestic flights canceled on Tuesday in the US, drawing the attention of regulators and lawmakers amid a collapse of holiday air travel days that began with a winter storm late last week.

On Tuesday more than 3,000 US flights among all the airlines, of which more than 2,600 corresponded to Southwesta problem the company blamed in part on employee scheduling and tracking tools. The airline canceled 64% of its scheduled flights on Tuesday, as other companies appeared to be recovering. According to the FlightAware flight tracking website, about 2% of the flights of other large national airlines were not operating as planned.

The company’s outages drew scrutiny from the Capitol and of the Department of Transportationwho said he was investigating the “unacceptable” handling of cancellations by Southwest. The chaos upended the plans of tens of thousands of frustrated travelers at a time when industry executives and analysts were optimistic about their ability to cope with the Christmas rush of passengers.

While all carriers have reported some delays and cancellations in recent days, Southwest’s inability to get travelers to their destinations has continued to stand out at airports across the country. The airline had already canceled some 2,500 flights scheduled for Wednesday, nearly 99% of domestic flights scrapped that day.

President Joe Biden tweeted that his administration was “working to ensure airlines are held accountable,” urging passengers to check the Department of Transportation website for airlines. indemnities. After pledging to investigate “whether the cancellations were controllable,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg met with Southwest CEO Bob Jordan on Tuesday to tell him his department expects the airline to honor its commitment to provide meals and hotels to stranded passengers.

The department said that would take steps to hold Southwest accountable if you do not fulfill your obligations and solve internal problems.

Baggage from canceled flights, in Chicago (Reuters)
Baggage from canceled flights, in Chicago (Reuters) (KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI /)

Southwest apologized for the interruptions, saying it would fly about a third of its normal schedule for several days as it tries to recover. The winter storm hit Southwest especially hard in Denver and Chicago, where it has large operations, according to company spokesman Chris Perry.

Perry said Southwest’s tools that match flight attendants to planes were “struggling” in the aftermath of the storm, calling it one of the “major drivers” of the current problems. Perry denied that the airline is understaffed and reiterated that its scheduling tools were having trouble keeping up.

Lyn Montgomery, president of TWU Local 556, which represents some 18,000 Southwest flight attendants, blamed the problems on a outdated programming technology.

After the initial spate of storm-related cancellations, there were often times when notify manually crews for flight changes, an arduous process that sometimes involved flight attendants standing on hold for hours to speak with workers who handle scheduling, he said. Montgomery shared screenshots on social media with examples of flight attendants who waited more than five hours on the phone.

Many flight attendants were unable to board flights to be in the correct cities for their shifts, he said. Crew members, who are required to take rest periods, also faced time constraints. Flight attendants had to wait for hotel assignments before they could rest, she said, leaving some without accommodation for much longer than normal.

“All of these problems are compounding each other,” Montgomery said.


The company offered few details about the internal crisis. Montgomery, a flight attendant for 30 years, urged passengers not to give up on the company or its crew.

“We’re still in trouble,” he said Tuesday. “We haven’t gotten out of the brush yet, but the company has done massive cancellations for us to reset and stop that domino effect”.

Aviation analyst Robert Mann of RW Mann & Co., an aviation consultancy, said Southwest’s scheduling systems have long been known to be archaic.

The system is based on manual reports that crew members provide about their location and the available time they have left to fly in a given period. Relying on that information when multiple data points change frequently during a significant outage can cause problems throughout the information chain, she said.

Other airlines, according to Mann, have improved their systems to manage disruptions more easily.

Lawmakers on Tuesday asked Southwest to compensate passengers whose cancellations were due to problems with the airline’s internal systems. In a joint statement, Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), members of the Senate Commerce Committee, said Southwest failed customers during the biggest travel week of the year.

“As Southwest executives have acknowledged, yesterday’s mass cancellations were due in large part to the failure of their own internal systems”, they pointed out.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, said her committee will look into the cause of Southwest’s outages, as well as whether to strengthen consumer protections related to air travel.

According to the Department of Transportation, Southwest has committed to the federal government to repair cancellations caused by problems within the company’s control, including free hotel accommodations for passengers stranded overnight due to a cancellation.

The reasons for the delays were no consolation to the passengers whose plans were cancelled.

Long hours of waiting in Baltimore, Maryland (Reuters)
Long hours of waiting in Baltimore, Maryland (Reuters) (MICHAEL MCCOY /)

Yata Watts, 50, a tax preparer and real estate agent who lives near Houston, was leaving about 3:30 a.m. Friday for an early flight to Fort Lauderdale with her three children when she received notification that they had been moved. the reservation for a departure at 3.45 in the afternoon. That flight was also cancelled.

The Royal Caribbean cruise was leaving at 4:00 p.m. that day, so the schedule didn’t work. She found a United flight for the family and had to shell out another $1,000 for the tickets. They made it to the cruise ship and were scheduled to return home on Tuesday, but on Monday night he was notified that his flight home—with a connection in New Orleans—had also been cancelled.

They didn’t give us any option to rebook“, said. she had to pay another $1,000 to fly United back home on Thursday. She and her children, ages 11, 13 and 17, are hanging out at a South Florida hotel. She plans to submit a claim to Southwest for reimbursement for the canceled flights and additional expenses incurred.

Southwest passengers who called the customer service lines earlier this week to speak with a company representative were on hold for hours. The airline’s website and app – which warned of long wait times – urged customers to speak to gate agents at airports, where some waited hours longer.

On Christmas night at Reagan National Airport, customers queued for more than three hours to talk to employees about rebooking their flights. As tensions mounted, customers complained that they could not retrieve luggage they had checked in before the flights were cancelled. Lines of Southwest passenger baggage could be seen in the National terminal on Tuesday.

More than 22,000 domestic flights have been canceled since the winter storm swept through the country on Thursday., a problem that initially affected all airlines. Of those, Southwest has canceled more than 11,000 flights during that time, and continues to reduce its schedule while other carriers have recovered.

Buttigieg urged other airlines to cap fares on certain routes, saying it would help customers looking to rebook flights after their Southwest flight has been cancelled.

Southwest’s latest woes come after a hectic summer that saw high cancellation rates across the industry, drawing the ire of passengers, lawmakers and Buttigieg. Federal authorities last month announced fines against six airlines for delays in refunds, saying they would be watching the development of the holidays.

The summer disruptions came at a time when airlines were scrambling to increase hiring as enthusiasm for travel picked up during the pandemic. Southwest became the first airline to surpass 2019 employment numbers last summer, hiring 15,700 workers this year. Airline executives had said they made reliability a priority and would be able to handle the busy holiday season of travel.

On an earnings call this fall, Southwest COO Mike Van de Ven said, “I feel like we’re really poised to do well over the holidays as we head into Thanksgiving and the Christmas season.”

Caroline Flynn, 24, was scheduled to fly Friday from Norfolk, where she is a student at Old Dominion University, to be with her family in Denver. Southwest changed the date of her flight to Christmas Day. After delays in Norfolk and Chicago Midway International Airport, she arrived at Kansas City International Airport for a layover.

However, the last leg of his flight was cancelled.

“I started crying at the airport,” says Flynn, a pharmaceutical technician. Despite the piles of unclaimed bags, he discovered her luggage had gone without her to Denver, where relatives picked it up.

She booked a United flight for 6 a.m. Monday instead of relying on Southwest to get her to Denver, sleeping at the airport while family members took turns on the phone to make her feel more secure. She had planned to fly Southwest back to Virginia on Friday, but instead she booked a flight with American Airlines.

Rob Demske and his family, including his teenage son and daughter, were planning to spend a warm Christmas in San Juan, Puerto Rico. They went to the Baltimore airport at 5 a.m. Saturday and got up to board. Then the message came: There was no pilot to fly the plane, and the flight was cancelled.

Southwest offered a flight on Thursday, but with a return scheduled for Saturday, the family from Potomac, Maryland, did not see a round trip to Puerto Rico as practical. They waited for hours for their bags to be delivered, until they were told that the luggage would arrive on time.

Demske, director of development for a nonprofit organization, says the family has been trying every day to learn the whereabouts of their bags. In the suitcases were much-loved family items – their late father’s sweatshirts now worn by the children – and no one is sure if they will ever see them again.

“Right now there is no way forward,” he says. “No one knows not only where the bags are, but how long they are going to stay where they are.”

© The Washington Post 2022 / By Rachel Lerman, Hannah Sampson, Justin George