Southwest Airlines canceled more than 2,900 flights Monday, disrupting holiday plans across the country, stranding passengers and causing chaos at some airports, as much of the country continued to suffer the aftermath of a historic winter storm.
The airline blamed the extreme weather for the cancellations, adding in a statement “our heartfelt apologies for this have only just begun. … We recognize that it falls short and sincerely apologize.”
Frustrated fliers, including those at Los Angeles International Airport, reported hours-long lines, lost luggage and unmanned planes after Southwest routes were canceled or delayed — with some saying not to expect a flight home for days.
The low-cost carrier had canceled nearly 70% of its scheduled flights across the country — about 2,905 flights, far more than any other major U.S. carrier — as of Monday night, according to tracking site FlightAware. Among all operators, more than 3,900 domestic and international flights were canceled, the website said.
Based on FlightAware data, LAX incurred 77 cancellations, or 9% of all Southwest flights, and 1[ads1]25 delays. But it fared better than other airports across the country, including those in Sacramento, San Jose, Denver, Las Vegas and Atlanta. Sacramento saw 45% of its flights cancelled, and San Jose 29%.
The U.S. Department of Transportation said Monday afternoon that it was “concerned about Southwest’s unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays’, as well as reports of ‘lack of prompt customer service’.
“The department will investigate whether cancellations were controllable and whether Southwest is complying with its customer service plan,” the agency said in a tweet.
As the departure screens at airports across the country lit up with delays and cancellations, travelers looked for other ways to reach family and friends. Some scrambled for rental cars and chose to make long drives instead of waiting at the airport.
What was supposed to be an hour and a half flight from Sacramento to Los Angeles on Monday for Matt Grippi turned into a six hour drive. He was rushing to catch an international flight scheduled for Tuesday and didn’t trust Southwest to get him to LAX on time.
His only options were stopovers as long as 26 hours that cost thousands of dollars, he said.
“Every single possible flight that I could have taken today to get home was canceled,” Grippi said. “Communication from the South West has been terrible. Not sure I can ever trust them again.”
Monday’s cancellations follow days of other travel disruptions from a nearly unprecedented weather event that stretched from the Great Lakes to the Rio Grande. About 60% of the US population faced some sort of winter weather advisory or warning, and temperatures dropped drastically below normal from east of the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians. Nationally, the storm was blamed for at least 50 deaths.
Travelers’ weather woes are likely to continue, with hundreds of flight cancellations already and more expected after a bomb cyclone – when atmospheric pressure drops very quickly in a strong storm – unleashed blizzard conditions, including high winds and snow.
In a statement Monday, Southwest Airlines pointed to “extreme winter weather” across the country and called the disruptions “unacceptable.”
The Dallas-based airline said it was “fully staffed and prepared” for the holiday weekend, but that “operational conditions” caused by the inclement weather sweeping much of the country “forced daily changes to our flight schedule with a volume and magnitude that still have the tools our teams use to restore the airline operating at capacity.”
The company said it was working to redeploy flight crews to “return to normal reliability” but signaled flights may continue to see changes through the New Year holiday.
“On the other side of this, we will work to make things right for those we have failed, including our employees,” Southwest said.
But the president of the union representing the company’s flight attendants told the Dallas Morning News that the “complete and utter chaos” was not due to staffing shortages, but rather Southwest’s “archaic, outdated systems.”
On Sunday, Southwest CEO Bob Jordan told the company’s employees in a memo that it could take a few days to get back on track, the Wall Street Journal reported.
As the delays and cancellations piled up, call times to the airline’s customer service lines averaged more than two hours, with some callers having to wait as long as four hours to speak to a representative, the company said.
A TikTok user’s post showed a video of a terminal at San Diego International Airport teeming with passengers waiting to speak with Southwest representatives. The caption read: “San Diego airport is WILDDD. 8 hour queue to speak to south-west officers.”
Randy Silver, 29, said he recorded the video on Christmas Day, after arriving from Sacramento, where he had spent the holiday with his girlfriend’s family. Fortunately, he said, his flight was delayed only about 20 minutes and left Sacramento. But when he arrived in San Diego, he and the other passengers were forced to sit on the tarmac for about an hour because no gates were available where the plane could unload.
He said he was shocked by the delirious scene that awaited him when he got off the plane, saying he had never seen the San Diego airport so busy before.
“You could definitely tell the people who were in line waiting to talk to the flight attendants were annoyed, frustrated, stressed, disappointed by what happened,” said Silver, who flies frequently for his job in technical sales.
And while he realized other travelers had a much harder time than he did, he said he also understood why some airlines would refuse to fly if it wasn’t safe to do so.
“It’s really unfortunate [that] a once-in-a-generation type of storm happened to hit during the biggest travel day of the year,” he said. “As much as people want to be with family and friends, I always want to err on the side of safety and caution.”
All Southwest Airlines flights from San Diego were canceled late Monday afternoon. The majority of all Southwest Airlines flights scheduled to arrive in San Diego, with the exception of one flight arriving from Honolulu, were also canceled, according to San Diego International Airport’s website.
Including Southwest and all other airlines, there were at least 90 canceled flights and at least 51 delayed flights Monday at San Diego International Airport, representing about 42% of all flights on the busy travel day, according to FlightAware.
Maya Polon was one of the few Southwest customers who made it out of Hollywood Burbank Airport Monday after her original flight on Sunday was canceled twice. She spent three hours at the airport trying to get a new flight after Southwest’s website and app failed.
“The only way to get rebooked was to go to the airport and talk to a human,” said Polon, 28.
Meanwhile, her mother, Emily Payne, was on hold with Southwest for four hours trying to help her. Polon got a flight back to Sacramento by 2 p.m., but some of her other hopeful passengers were told they wouldn’t get a flight home until at least Wednesday, she said.
Polon said people at the scene were angry, and police became involved in an altercation between a passenger and Southwest employees.
The Associated Press and the San Diego Union-Tribune contributed to this report.