Vacation travel has reached new heights of chaos, largely as a result of mass cancellations by Southwest Airlines.
Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images
After a week of extreme winter weather hitting different parts of the country at once, chaos continues at airports across the country. Thousands of passengers (myself included) are stuck in a wave of cancellations by Southwest Airlines. The company reportedly cut more than 15,700 flights since Dec. 22, and on Wednesday alone he cut 2,798 flights. “We’re optimistic that we’ll be back on track by next week,” says Southwest CEO Bob Jordan, but so far the impact is going strong. Evacuated passengers face hours-long waits to speak to customer service representatives, endless queues at Southwest ticket counters, and huge crowds of people asking where to go, how and where to go. It reports a pervasive atmosphere of confusion trying to understand what is going on.
“I spent my entire vacation at the airport,” one woman told New York that she ended up spending Christmas in Chicago’s Midway and was left there for two nights. Times“I get a few minutes of sleep here and there, but not too much.”
As with the disruption to summer air travel, the situation appears to be the result of a combination of factors. Beginning around December 21st, severe winter storms hit everywhere. An arctic cold front swept across the United States, sending temperatures plummeting and winds well below freezing in many areas. Blizzards, bomb cyclones, floods, record gusts of wind and massive blackouts all made the trip a nightmare. Suspended on some routes. The road was closed due to dangerous driving conditions. Also, from December 21-24, US airlines canceled more than 12,000 of his flights.
But bad weather was only part of the problem for the Southwest. Certain practices at the company have also caused problems, according to NPR. First, Southwest Airlines returns its planes to regional hubs rather than using the “hub-and-spoke” approach that most airlines do. Instead, it relies on a point-to-point model, routing planes from airport to airport to airport and using them as quick stops for one long trip. Other airlines can eliminate certain flight routes when bad weather hits, but Southwest Airlines’ bus-like approach creates a more complex logistics network.
“Often, there are all sorts of pilots and flight attendants who can’t get where they need to because the crew isn’t based in the same city or doesn’t live in the city they’re based in. Former commercial pilots and flight attendants Aware spokesperson Kathleen Bangs told NPR, “So when it’s bad weather, everything tends to stop working properly.” The plane will not appear where it should be to complete the route. Southwest also appears to have relied on outdated technology, with winter storms crippling its scheduling system. CNN reports that the company had to manually reconfigure his flight schedule. “It’s a tedious and long process,” Southwest chief operating officer Andrew Watterson told his employees during a conference call Monday, according to a transcript obtained by CNN. Crew schedulers “will be making great strides,” Watterson reportedly explained. Compounding the trickyness of this Sisyphus-like task, other systems in the Southwest are also reported to be inadequate. “It’s the phone, it’s the computer, it’s the processing power, it’s the programs that are used to connect us to the plane. Captain Casey Murray, chairman of the airline, told CNN. .
Another challenge for customers is the company’s rebooking policy. Times Southwest Airlines reportedly does not exchange tickets with other airlines. That means passengers may have had to come up with alternatives on their own this week. As one of those passengers, he can attest to the difficulty and expense of having to find last minute airfare when the number of available flights plummets during the holiday rush. Almost double the price of the original round trip ticket to return home on Friday – the most affordable option I’ve seen.
But Southwest Airlines has admitted that its meltdown was “unacceptable,” in the airline’s words. In its latest statement, the company said it “deeply apologizes” to customers and said, “On the contrary, we will try to make things right for those we let down, including our employees.” It also promises to reimburse customers for the cost of canceled tickets and “reasonable” expenses, including meals, accommodation and alternative transportation. Customers can submit receipts on their trip disruption page. “We are finalizing resources to provide additional assistance to customers reuniting or reuniting missing packages.” But it’s also worth noting that Southwest isn’t the first airline to cause chaos with an impromptu service implosion. We all remember the images of Checkback Purgatory at Heathrow. July 2022. FlightAware spokesperson Bangs told his NPR: