Why Southwest Airlines Canceled So Many Flights During Christmas Week

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At a press conference in Houston, Southwest spokesman Jay McVay said cancellations had increased as storm systems moved across the country, leaving crews and planes out of place.

“So we are chasing our tails, trying to catch up and get back to normal safely, which is our No. 1 priority, as soon as possible,” he said. “And that’s exactly how we got to where we are today.”

Unlike many other US air carriers, Southwest operates on what is known as a point-to-point flight path system, which means that a plane will fly consecutive routes, picking up different crews along the way.

In normal times, this could allow Southwest to operate more flights in a given 24-hour period than other airlines, said Scott Mayerowitz, executive editor of travel website The Points Guy.

But if an airport is offline due to weather and a flight cannot reach its destination, the point-to-point system will have a cascading cancellation effect, he said.

“When bad weather hits and you have staffing issues like they do, it creates a situation that is almost impossible to recover from and it couldn’t have happened during a worst possible week,” Mayerowitz said of the Southwest cancellations.

Southwest’s troubles appear to have been complicated by past staffing problems at its Denver fuel supplier, CNBC reported. Additionally, a report by The Denver Post confirmed the authenticity of a leaked internal memo that said Southwest had entered an “operational state of emergency” in Denver last Wednesday because of an unusually high number of absences among employees. ramp agents.

It was not immediately clear whether this issue was still affecting flights on Tuesday.

Randy Barnes, president of the union representing ramp agents, said there was no walkout. He said the weather was so severe – and temperatures so low – that normal procedures to ensure staff could carry out their duties effectively had been disrupted.

“People need recovery time to warm up and come back,” Barnes said. He continued: “That part of the operation can’t move at the same pace, at the same speed as it normally does. So something is going to give way.”

Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said Southwest did not adequately prepare flights for the storm, which crippled ground transportation and maintenance vehicles. The planes had fuel that froze and drinking water that froze in winter conditions, Murray said.

“The fact is, we weren’t prepared,” Murray said.

Increasing Difficulty: Most Southwest crews remain in contract negotiations with the carrier.

“The Southwest of yesteryear is gone,” Murray said. “Now it’s threats and intimidation to motivate instead of the old Southwest with heart.”

Southwest Airlines did not immediately respond to questions about ongoing contract talks with its crews.

CNBC also reported that internal technology failures prevented crew reassignments.

The Department of Transport said in a statement which plans to examine whether the cancellations were “manageable” and whether Southwest is sticking to its customer service plan.

The ordeal caught the attention of some lawmakers, including Democratic Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who urged Southwest Airlines to “fix this” by “fairly compensating passengers whose flights were canceled, including not only rescheduled tickets, ticket refunds, and hotel, meal, and transportation reimbursement, but significant monetary compensation for the disruption of your vacation plans.”

In a message posted on Twitter, President Joe Biden said: “Our administration is working to ensure that airlines are held accountable.”

Meyerowitz said the Department of Transportation, under the leadership of Secretary Pete Buttigieg, has taken an aggressive stance when it comes to airlines causing problems for consumers and that he would not be surprised if severe penalties were applied.

“We’re still waiting to see the actual regulations come forward and be implemented, but there was the biggest conversation I’ve seen in over a decade,” Meyerowitz said.

CORRECTION (December 27, 2022, 4:28 pm ET): An earlier version of this article was incorrect when Southwest confirmed it would operate at one-third capacity “for the next few days.” He issued the statement on Monday, not Tuesday.