NATIONAL NEWS

Southwest cancellations continue as airline deals with ‘meltdown’ fallout

Dec 29, 2022, 6:05 AM | Updated: 6:10 am

(CNN) — As Southwest Airlines scrambled to get its planes back in the air and its passengers back home heading into Thursday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has taken a sharp line with the company.

He’s pulling no punches, referring to the situation as a complete “meltdown” of the system.

“You’ve got a company here that’s got a lot of cleaning up to do,” he has said.

And while the company has previously warned that it could take days to clear the backlog of stranded people and lost luggage, one of its unions offered a ray of hope that things might be better by early as Friday.

But Thursday promises to be more of the same, with 2,356 Southwest flights already canceled, according to flight tracking website FlightAware. Once again, cancellations are almost all on Southwest; there are only 2,435 total U.S. flights canceled for Thursday as of 5 a.m. ET.

On top of all that, there’s increasing scrutiny of what led up to this meltdown, with operations at Denver International Airport under a microscope.

‘Operational emergency’ in Denver

Southwest’s decision to enact “operational emergency” staffing procedures last week at the airport in Denver as a massive winter storm bore down hints at a tangle of factors contributing to the airline’s nationwide operational crisis.

The Denver airport led the United States in cancellations on Wednesday and has been one of the nation’s biggest problem spots for several days.

The Southwest emergency staffing procedures in Denver included requiring a note from a doctor to verify illness after an employee calls out sick, a Southwest spokesperson told CNN Wednesday.

The spokesperson could not say whether the staffing policy remains in place or when the special rules ended.

The Washington Post cited a Southwest memo related to the operational emergency, dated December 21, in which the airline’s vice president for ground operations declared the condition was imposed because of an “unusually high number of absences” of Denver-based ramp employees, including sick calls and personal days for afternoon and evening shifts.

The operational emergency — experienced only at Denver, according to the company — is distinct from the issue the company says is to blame for the cascade of cancellations nationwide.

Denver International Airport has announced plans to conduct after-action reviews with the airport’s three major carriers — Frontier, Southwest and United — to learn from the disruptions while the situation is still fresh.

A ray of hope?

Meanwhile, an official for the union representing Southwest pilots said they expect to have their flight schedules almost back to normal by the end of the work week.

Mike Santoro, vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday that they have been hearing that the airline is planning for a “mostly full schedule come Friday.”

“The weather, you know, was a big event that triggered it, although that’s no excuse for the lack of scheduling IT infrastructure which really caused the problem,” Santoro said.

The union official said Southwest’s scheduling infrastructure usually works well, but added this is not the first time they have seen a meltdown causing delays. “When you have these big weather events, it always seems to crash,” said Santoro.

As of 5 a.m. ET Thursday, Southwest had canceled only 39 flights for Friday, according to FlightAware.

Tough stats for Southwest this week

Of the 2,914 Wednesday cancellations for flights departing within, to or out of the United States, some 2,510 of them were operated by Southwest, according to FlightAware. That is 86% of all canceled flights in the United States.

In all, Southwest has canceled about 15,700 flights since winter weather began disrupting air travel on December 22. (That figure includes the flights already canceled for Thursday.)

Southwest has struggled to unwind itself from the tangled string of cancellations that began with the winter storm. Union leaders say software and manual processes are used to reassign flight crews, who for safety reasons are limited in the number of hours they may work.

Southwest spokesperson Chris Perry told CNN the airline is not experiencing an issue with employees not showing up for work.

“We have not had staffing issues at any station across our operation and commend our people for the valiant work they are doing,” Perry said.

This is now a Southwest problem

Other U.S. airlines flying in the same weather conditions have since recovered from the storm disruptions.

In fact, American Airlines and United Airlines have capped prices on some routes served by Southwest Airlines to make their flights more accessible to stranded passengers.

Southwest does not have interline agreements with other carriers that would allow its agents to rebook passengers on a different airline, leaving travelers in charge of exploring other options.

Why Southwest is melting down

Southwest plans to fly a reduced schedule over the next few days to reposition crew and planes, airline CEO Bob Jordan said in a video released by the airline late Tuesday.

“We’re optimistic to be back on track before next week,” he said before the pilots’ union announcement.

Buttigieg says he spoke directly to Jordan on Tuesday about the thousands of flights that have been canceled this week.

“Their system really has completely melted down,” Buttigieg told Blitzer. “I made clear that our department will be holding them accountable for their responsibilities to customers, both to get them through this situation and to make sure that this can’t happen again.”

Those responsibilities include providing meal vouchers and hotel accommodations for passengers whose flights were disrupted “as a result of Southwest’s decisions and actions,” a Department of Transportation (DOT) spokesperson said.

U.S. airlines are also required to provide cash refunds to passengers whose flights were canceled and opted not to travel, the DOT said.

Buttigieg told CNN the Department of Transportation is prepared to pursue fines against Southwest if there is evidence that the company has failed to meet its legal obligations, but he added that the department will be taking a closer look at consistent customer service problems at the airline.

The secretary said he told CEO Jordan that he expects Southwest to proactively offer refunds and expense reimbursement to affected passengers without them having to ask.

What customers should do

One travel expert cautions to proceed carefully regarding refunds.

“Southwest says ‘We will honor reasonable requests for reimbursement for meals, hotel, and alternate transportation,’ ” points out Phil Dengler, co-founder of travel advice site The Vacationer.

“While Southwest is being vague on how much they will reimburse, I would avoid any expensive hotels or restaurants. Use Google Hotels to find nearby hotels near the airport where you are stranded.”

And he also cautions about piling up a big tab.

“Do a few Google searches such as ‘free things to do near me.’ I doubt Southwest is going to reimburse tours or other paid activities, so I would not book any expensive excursions that you cannot afford.”

Southwest CEO issues video apology

Jordan apologized to passengers and employees in the video released on Tuesday evening.

“We’re doing everything we can to return to a normal operation, and please also hear that I am truly sorry,” Jordan said.

He said with large numbers of airplanes and flight crews “out of position” in dozens of cities, the airline decided to “significantly reduce our flying to catch up.”

While Jordan acknowledged problems with the company response, the statement suggested that he did not foresee massive changes to Southwest’s operating plans in response to the mass cancellations.

“The tools we use to recover from disruption serve us well 99% of the time, but clearly we need to double-down on our already-existing plans to upgrade systems for these extreme circumstances so that we never again face what’s happening right now,” said Jordan.

What’s the hit to Southwest’s reputation?

“It is going to take a long time for Southwest Airlines to earn back public trust,” Dengler of The Vacationer said.

“While the extreme weather affected other airlines, Southwest experienced a true meltdown at the worst possible time. Many Americans have to decide on whether or not to wait it out or spend potentially thousands of dollars to get home that may or may not be fully reimbursed by Southwest.”

He noted that “some households did not even have the option to wait it out because one or multiple members had to return to work early this week. Unfortunately, that is going to be a hardship for many families, and the time lost is going to be significant in many cases.”

“A large portion of Americans only fly once per year, and they want a problem-free experience. I believe many people are going to pause when booking their next flight and they see Southwest Airlines as the cheapest option.”


The-CNN-Wire
™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories

National News

Saginaw Police K9 Cigan sits behind a table with evidence found inside a stolen car. (WNEM)...
Anna Kathman

Stolen vehicle, multiple drugs located by Michigan K9 officer

Saginaw Police said two suspects are behind bars after a stolen vehicle was located during a traffic stop by a K9 officer.
18 hours ago
A 29-year old woman has been arrested after allegedly posing as a teenager and attending classes at...
Kiely Westhoff and Zoe Sottile, CNN

29-year-old woman posed as high school teen facing charges in New Jersey, police say

A 29-year-old New Jersey woman is facing charges over claims she used false government documents in a ploy to pose as a teenager at a high school, according to police.
18 hours ago
Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during an election night event at Mar-a-Lago on November ...
Meg Kinnard and Michelle L. Price

Trump says beating of Nichols ‘never should have happened’

Former President Donald Trump says the footage of the brutal beating of Tyre Nichols by five Memphis police officers is “horrible” and that the attack “never should have happened.”
2 days ago
One the of climbers in the training camp climbing a wall. (KSL-TV's Alex Cabrero)...
Alex Cabrero

USA Climbing Camp for Paris 2024 begins in Salt Lake City

As the Summer 2024 Olympic Games draws closer, those athletes looking to participate begin their training. 
2 days ago
MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE - SEPTEMBER 7:  Police investigate the scene of a reported carjacking reportedly...
Adrian Sainz

Memphis police disband unit that fatally beat Tyre Nichols

The Memphis Police Department has disbanded the special unit whose officers beat to death motorist Tyre Nichols
2 days ago
Demonstrators participate in a protest against the police killing of Tyre Nichols on January 27, 20...
Adrian Sainz, Associated Press

Memphis authorities release video in Tyre Nichols’ death

Video showing five Memphis officers beating Tyre Nichols, a Black man, has been made public.
3 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Fiber Optical cables connected to an optic ports and Network cables connected to ethernet ports...
Brian Huston, CE and Anthony Perkins, BICSI

Why Every Business Needs a Structured Cabling System

A structured cabling system benefits businesses by giving you faster processing speeds and making your network more efficient and reliable.
notebook with password notes highlighted...
PC Laptops

How to Create Strong Passwords You Can Actually Remember

Learn how you can create strong passwords that are actually easy to remember! In a short time you can create new ones in seconds.
house with for rent sign posted...
Chase Harrington, president and COO of Entrata

Top 5 Reasons You May Want to Consider Apartment Life Over Owning a Home

There are many benefits of renting that can be overshadowed by the allure of buying a home. Here are five reasons why renting might be right for you.
Festive kitchen in Christmas decorations. Christmas dining room....
Lighting Design

6 Holiday Decor Trends to Try in 2022

We've rounded out the top 6 holiday decor trends for 2022 so you can be ahead of the game before you start shopping. 
Happy diverse college or university students are having fun on their graduation day...
BYU MBA at the Marriott School of Business

How to Choose What MBA Program is Right for You: Take this Quiz Before You Apply!

Wondering what MBA program is right for you? Take this quiz before you apply to see if it will help you meet your goals.
Diverse Group of Energetic Professionals Team Meeting in Modern Office: Brainstorming IT Programmer...
Les Olson

Don’t Let a Ransomware Attack Get You Down | Protect Your Workplace Today with Cyber Insurance

Business owners and operators should be on guard to protect their workplace. Cyber insurance can protect you from online attacks.
Southwest cancellations continue as airline deals with ‘meltdown’ fallout