Southwest and other airlines cancel thousands of US flights

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Southwest Airlines canceled thousands of flights on Tuesday and Wednesday as the company struggled to recover from a deadly winter storm that stranded vacationers across the country.

The interruption of the company’s operation can continue for several days. At many airports where Southwest flies, people have taken to sleeping on the floor and waiting in line for hours.

As of around 11:30 am ET on Tuesday, more than 2,900 flights across the United States have been canceled and more than 2,400 more delayed, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking service. Most of the cancellations – more than 2,500 of them – came from Southwest, which had already canceled more than 60% of its flights that day.

The airline has already canceled about 61% of its Wednesday flights and 14% of its Thursday flights, according to FlightAware. Southwest shares were down about 5 percent on Tuesday morning.

Aviation experts said the storm had a disproportionate impact on Southwest because the company configures its network very differently from other major airlines such as American Airlines and Delta Air Lines. Southwest, which has long prided itself on good relations with its employees, has also recently struggled with staffing shortages that have heightened tensions between management and workers, said Robert W. Mann Jr., a former airline executive. who now runs the consulting firm RW Mann & Company.

“Southwest clearly got the worst of it,” Mann said. “I have to think it was cultural more than anything else.”

Late Monday and into Tuesday morning, Southwest was in damage control mode, responding to angry and frustrated customers on Twitter. O airline repeatedly apologized for cancellations and offered assistance through direct messages. The airline called its problems “unacceptable” and said it was doing everything possible to move crews to where they were needed to restore its system.

“Our biggest issue right now is getting our crews and our aircraft in the right places,” Chris Perry, a Southwest spokesman, said in an email.

United States Department of Transportation said in a statement on Monday that it would look into the issues at Southwest, adding that it was concerned about the airline’s “unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays” and reports of poor customer service.

Henry Harteveldt, airline analyst at Atmosphere Research Group, said in an email that Southwest’s structure made it “uniquely vulnerable to weather problems, especially geographically extensive and intense as this storm has been.”

“I don’t recall ever seeing an airline go through such an operational problem as what we’re currently seeing at Southwest,” he said.

Most airlines operate on a “hub and spoke” basis, with planes returning to a hub airport after flying to other cities – United’s hubs, for example, include airports in or near Newark, Houston and Denver. Southwest uses a “point-to-point” approach, in which planes tend to fly from one destination to another without returning to a hub.

Hub and spoke airlines can close specific routes when bad weather hits, resuming operations when conditions improve. But Southwest can’t do that so easily without disrupting multiple flights and routes, he said.

David Vernon, an airline analyst at financial firm Sanford C. Bernstein, said the system allows for greater use of planes in normal times but can have cascading negative effects when things go wrong.

Making matters worse for customers: Southwest has a no-trade policy with other airlines, so the airline can’t rebook passengers on other flights, Harteveldt said. The disaster could force the airline to “buy back” frustrated customers with deeper discounts or run more promotions, he said.

No region or airport was impacted by the cancellations. As of Tuesday morning, more than 155 flights originating at Denver International Airport, or about 17% of its outbound traffic, were canceled, and more than 115 flights, or about 38%, were canceled at Chicago Midway International. More than 100 flights were also canceled at Harry Reid International in Las Vegas, and similar numbers were reported for Baltimore-Washington International, Dallas Love Field in Texas and Nashville International in Tennessee.

It’s been almost a week since the winter storm began to wreak havoc on millions of travelers. The number of canceled flights started to climb last Thursday, when airlines canceled more than 2,600 of them. The next day, nearly 6,000, or about a quarter of all US flights, were canceled across the country. On Saturday, Christmas Eve, nearly 3,500 flights were canceled and slightly less, around 3,200, were cut from schedules on Christmas Day.

Recovery is just beginning in areas like Buffalo, where at least 28 people died and roads remained impassable after the area’s worst winter storm in more than 50 years. The driving ban remained in effect and the snow was expected to finally end early Tuesday after accumulations of up to 49 inches. Many streets were not plowed and vehicles remained parked on the roads, Governor Kathy Hochul said on Monday.

Most power outages were restored after affecting more than a million customers at the storm’s peak, but thousands remained without power in Maine and New York on Tuesday, according to poweroutage.us.

Steve Lohr contributed reports.

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