The winter storm that disrupted travel plans over the weekend and created an epic pile of flight cancellations for Southwest Airlines left the airline’s passengers “beyond frustrated,” as. Thousands of families were stranded, with some waiting days to board flights.
Now, two Democratic senators are asking the carrier to make travelers whole with “substantial financial compensation for the disruption to their vacation plans.”
“Southwest plans to issue a $428 million dividend next year – the company can afford to do right by the consumers it has harmed,”[ads1]; Senators Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.
Southwest on Tuesday had canceled more than 2,660, or 65%, of its scheduled flights as of 8 p.m. ET, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware. That accounted for more than half of the roughly 5,000 flights scrapped today. Other airlines also continued to experience disruptions, with Southwest leading the way with 870 delayed flights.
Talia Jones, a Southwest Air customer, told CBS DFW that she was “beyond frustrated and hurt because I can’t see my dad. So yeah, it’s very disappointing.”
Monday afternoon, the board at Dallas Love Field, Southwest’s main hub, showed every single arrival canceled, according to reporter Kelly Laco.
At Chicago’s Midway International Airport – where Southwest is the main carrier – wait times were long and patience was running out Monday night,.
The situation was described by one traveler as nothing short of a mess. As well as long queues taking up space, hundreds and hundreds of bags were waiting to be claimed as the cancellations and delays continued to pile up.
“It’s been hell,” said Denzil Smothers, whose flight was canceled.
People also took to social media to blast Southwest, including one Twitter user who on Tuesday posted video of bags piled up in Chicago at Midway Airport.
“We know that irregular operations are frustrating for everyone involved, and we are truly sorry for the disappointment,” Southwest told a traveler on Twitter who was upset about the amount of canceled flights.
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.
In a video statement Tuesday, CEO Bob Jordan said many of the airline’s planes and crews were “out of position in dozens of locations.”
“After days of trying to operate as much of our full schedule through the busy holiday weekend, we reached a decision point to significantly reduce our aircraft to catch up,” Jordan added. “We are focused on safely getting all the pieces back into position to soon end this rolling battle.”
Jordan said he was “optimistic” that the airline would be “apparently back on track before next week.”
“We expect further changes with an already reduced level of flights as we approach the upcoming New Year holiday period,” the company’s statement 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 .
Jordan said in his video address that “the tools we use to recover from outages serve us well 99% of the time, but it’s clear that we need to double down on our plans to upgrade systems for these extreme circumstances so that we never again face what is happening now.”
Many are now calling on Southwest to do more than apologize. Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Edward Markey of Massachusetts are demanding that the carrier give travelers money to compensate for the inconvenience they face. They point out that the company, which plans to pay out $428 million in dividends next year, “can afford to do right by the consumers it has harmed.”
“Southwest cannot avoid compensating passengers by claiming these flight cancellations were caused by recent winter storms. As Southwest executives have acknowledged, yesterday’s mass cancellations were largely due to failures of its own internal systems,” they said Tuesday.
Jordan said in his video address that he had reached out to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg “to continue the discussions we’ve had with DOT over the holidays and share everything we’re doing to make things right for our customers.”
Jammed phone lines, systems
Meanwhile, 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.
The Public Interest Research Group on Tuesday called for an overhaul of airline regulations and tougher penalties for airlines with chronically late or canceled flights.
“While the terrible weather is no one’s fault, the way travelers were treated and accommodated — or not — rests squarely on the shoulders of most airlines,” PIRG consumer watchdog Teresa Murray said in a statement.
— With reporting by Zel Elvi, Kathryn Krupnik, Kris Van Cleave and Brian Dakss.