The winter storm that disrupted thousands of travel plans over the weekend has created an epic pile of flight cancellations for Southwest Airlines, leaving thousands of families stranded, with some waiting days to fly home.
Two-thirds of Southwest’s flights had been canceled as of Monday afternoon, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware — far more than any other airline. With about 2,700 Southwest flights canceled, another 700 were delayed Monday, FlightAware found.
On Monday afternoon, the board at Dallas Love Field, the airline’s main hub, showed that every single arrival had been canceled, according to reporter Kelly Laco.
The airline canceled more than 1,600 flights on Sunday, and 1,300 each day last week on Thursday and Friday.
The federal Department of Transportation said Monday it would investigate the meltdown, saying it was “concerned about Southwest Airlines’ disproportionate and unacceptable frequency of cancellations and delays, as well as its lack of support for customers experiencing a cancellation or delay.”
“As more information becomes available, the department will carefully investigate whether cancellations were controllable and whether Southwest is complying with its customer service plan as well as all other relevant DOT regulations,” the department said in a statement.
Traveler Michael Bauzon and his family planned to fly out of Orlando International Airport on Friday to return home to Indianapolis in time for Christmas on Sunday. Instead, the four spent the holidays in a hotel after their flight was canceled, Bauzon told CBS affiliate WKMG, and were back at the airport on Monday — where they continued to wait.
“This morning we got here at 4:30 for a 7:05 flight, we looked it up and it had just been canceled,” he said, gesturing to a line snaking in front of the Southwest service desk. “It’s a four- to five-hour line … before they can get us on a plane — if they can get us on a plane,” he said.
Widespread storm, outdated technology
In a statement Monday that opened with a “heartfelt apology,” Southwest said its geography made it “uniquely” vulnerable to the storm, with half of the airports it flies to affected by winter weather.
“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 travel markets in the US. This forced daily changes to our flight schedule with a volume and size that continues to have the tools our teams are using to restore the airline operating at capacity,” the statement said.
“We expect further changes with an already reduced level of flights as we approach the upcoming New Year holiday period,” it said.
The company also blames a lack of technology. “Part of what we’re suffering is a lack of tools. We’ve talked a lot about modernizing operations, and the need to do that,” CEO Bob Jordan said in an internal memo Sunday that was reported by several media outlets and the flight attendants union .
Jammed phone lines, systems
Southwest directed customers away from jammed phone lines, noting that they were experiencing “system issues” amid increased demand.
Spokesman Chris Perry said the airline’s online booking and check-in systems were still working, but had also stalled due to “abnormally high” volumes of traffic on its website. “We are accommodating as many customers as possible based on available space,” he told CBS News.
When Southwest blamed technology problems, the flight attendants’ union, Transit Workers Union 556, accused the airline of contributing to the problem by underinvesting in technology for years.
“The lack of technology has left the airline relying on manual solutions and personal phone calls, leaving flight attendants on hold with Southwest Airlines for up to 17 hours at a time simply to be cleared to go home after their trip, or while trying to secure a hotel room or know where their next trip will be,” the union said in a statement. “Although rerouting and rescheduling are considered part of the job in the airline industry, the massive scale of the error in recent days points to years of shirking the responsibility to invest in and implement technology that can help solve problems. many of the problems that plague flight attendants and passengers alike.”
The union and the airline have been in contract negotiations for four years.
— With reporting by Zel Elvi, Kathryn Krupnik and Kris Van Cleave.