A harsh winter storm has dumped feet of snow across much of the United States, leading to widespread flight cancellations during the Christmas holidays. By Monday, air travel was more or less back to normal — unless you booked vacation travel through Southwest Airlines.
Southwest Airlines accounted for more than 90 percent of U.S. flight cancellations on Tuesday, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware. Southwest Airlines canceled 2,500 flights. Next highest: Spirit Airlines, with 75.
Southwest Airlines warned it would continue to cancel flights until its operations got back on track. The company’s chief executive said it was the biggest disruption of his career. The Biden administration is investigating.
Southwest Airlines had bad luck and bad planning.
The storm hit Chicago and Denver hard, and Southwest has two of its biggest hubs — Chicago Midway and Denver International.
Even more unfortunate: The storm came as a so-called triple pandemic gripped the United States, catching people and their families with COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus. While Southwest said it was fully staffed for the holiday weekend, the illness made it difficult to adapt to the increased pressure on the system. Many airlines still don’t have enough people to recover when events such as severe weather cause delays or when flight crews work more hours than federal safety regulations allow.
But Southwest Airlines (LUV) has also been hurt by an overly aggressive schedule and underinvestment in its operations.
FlightAware spokeswoman Kathleen Bangs told CNN that Southwest’s schedule included shorter flights and tighter turnaround times, which caused some problems.
“Those turnaround times bogged things down,” Bangs said.
Stranded customers were unable to reach Southwest’s customer service line to rebook flights or find lost luggage.
Employees also said they were unable to communicate with the airline, the president of the union representing Southwest flight attendants told CNN on Monday.
“The phone system that the company was using wasn’t working,” Lyn Montgomery, president of TWU Local 556, told CNN’s Pamela Brown. “They just weren’t manned enough to change the schedules of the flight attendants, and that created a knock-on effect, causing chaos across the country.”
Capt. Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said the problems facing Southwest had been brewing for a long time.
“We’ve had these issues for the last 20 months,” he told CNN. “We’ve seen these kinds of crashes happen much more often, and it’s really just about outdated processes and outdated IT.”
The airline’s operations have not changed much since the 1990s, he said.
“It’s the phone, it’s the computer, it’s the processing power, it’s the programming that connects us to the plane — that’s the problem, and it’s a systemic problem across the airline,” he said.
In a message to employees obtained by CNN, Southwest CEO Bob Jordan acknowledged many of Murray’s concerns and promised the company would invest in better systems.
“Part of what we suffer from is a lack of tools,” Jordan told employees. “We’ve talked a lot about modernizing operations and the need to do that.”
He said the airline was “committed and invested” in improving its systems, but “we need to be able to develop solutions more quickly.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation said it was investigating.
“The U.S. Department of Transportation is concerned by reports of Southwest Airlines’ unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays and lack of timely customer service,” the agency said. tweets“The department will examine whether the cancellation is manageable and whether Southwest Airlines is adhering to its customer service plan.”
To recover, Jordan told the Journal that the company plans to complete more than a third of its schedule over the next few days to allow itself to get the crew into the correct position.
If all of this is ringing alarm bells, it’s because this isn’t the first time Southwest Airlines’ service has crashed in epic fashion. In October 2021, Southwest Airlines canceled more than 2,000 flights over four days, costing the airline $75 million.
Southwest blamed severe weather in Florida, a brief issue with air traffic control in the area and a lack of available staff to accommodate the service collapse. It has acknowledged that it had service problems due to staff shortages before thousands of canceled flights left hundreds of thousands of passengers stranded.
Similar to this month’s service turmoil, Southwest Airlines fared worse than its competitors last October. While Southwest canceled hundreds of flights in the days following the peak of the disruption in October, rivals quickly resumed normal service.
Later that month, on a conference call with Wall Street analysts, then-CEO Gary Kelly said the company had made adjustments to prevent a similar collapse in the future.
“We have reined in our capacity plans to accommodate the current staffing environment and our on-time performance has improved accordingly,” Kelly said on Oct. 21. We are now more than halfway toward that goal . ”
And, like the recent outage, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association claimed the cancellation was due to “poor planning by management.”
– CNN’s Ross Levitt contributed to this report