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Southwest draws regulatory scrutiny as thousands more flights canceled

The carrier’s disruptions upended holiday travel plans for tens of thousands of air travelers

Southwest Airlines slashed thousands of U.S. flights again on Dec. 27, leaving passengers stranded across the country. (Video: Reuters)
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Southwest Airlines accounted for about 85 percent of canceled domestic flights Tuesday, drawing the attention of U.S. regulators and lawmakers amid a days-long meltdown of holiday air travel that began with a winter storm late last week.

More than 3,000 U.S. flights were canceled Tuesday among all carriers, with Southwest accounting for more than 2,600 of the total — a problem the airline blamed partly on tools for tracking and creating employee schedules. The airline grounded 64 percent of its scheduled flights Tuesday, even as other carriers appeared to recover. Among other major domestic carriers, about 2 percent of flights were not operating as planned, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware.

Airlines experienced rampant cancelations and delays over the holiday weekend after a massive winter storm blanketed much of the United States in snow and ice. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)

The carrier’s disruptions attracted fresh scrutiny from Capitol Hill and the Transportation Department, which said it was looking into Southwest’s “unacceptable” handling of cancellations. The chaos upended plans for tens of thousands of frustrated air travelers at a time when industry executives and analysts had expressed optimism over their ability to handle an onslaught of holiday passengers.

While all carriers have reported some delays and cancellations in recent days, Southwest’s inability to get travelers to their destinations has continued to stand out at airports across the country. The carrier already had canceled about 2,500 flights scheduled for Wednesday, nearly 99 percent of domestic flights scrapped that day.

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President Biden tweeted that his administration was “working to ensure airlines are held accountable,” urging passengers to check the Transportation Department’s website about compensation. After pledging to look into “whether cancellations were controllable,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg met Tuesday with Southwest CEO Bob Jordan to say his department expects the carrier to meet commitments to provide meals and hotels for stranded passengers.

The department said it would take action to hold Southwest accountable if it doesn’t fulfill its obligations and fix internal problems.

Jordan apologized to customers and employees in a video Tuesday evening, saying the airline must cancel more flights to resume normal operations by the end of the week. In the meantime, he said, employees and planes will be repositioned to correct locations.

The airline is working to process refunds for passengers paying for costly plan changes and new flights, Jordan said. He said the airline will work to upgrade Southwest’s systems to handle such large-scale weather events “so that we never again face what’s happening right now.”

The winter storm hit Southwest particularly hard in Denver and Chicago, where it has large operations, according to company spokesman Chris Perry.

Perry said Southwest’s tools that match flight attendants with planes were “struggling” in the wake of the storm, calling it one of the “primary factors” of ongoing issues. He denied that the airline is understaffed, reiterating that its scheduling tools were having problems keeping up.

Lyn Montgomery, president of TWU Local 556, which represents about 18,000 Southwest flight attendants, blamed the problems on outdated scheduling technology.

After the initial wave of storm-related cancellations, flight crews often had to be notified manually about flight changes, an arduous process that sometimes involved flight attendants waiting on hold for hours to speak to workers who handle scheduling, she said. Montgomery shared screenshots on social media showing examples of flight attendants who waited more than five hours on the phone.

Holiday air travel this year is worse than in years past

Many flight attendants couldn’t get on flights to be in the correct cities for their shifts, she said. Crew members, who are mandated to take rest periods, also ran into time limits. Flight attendants had to wait to get hotel assignments so that they could rest, she said, leaving some without a place to stay for much longer than normal.

“All of these issues are compounding on one another,” Montgomery said.

The company released few details about the internal meltdown. Montgomery, who has been a flight attendant for 30 years, urged passengers not to give up on the airline and its crew.

“We’re still in the thick of it,” she said Tuesday. “We’re not out of the weeds yet, but the company has made mass cancellations in order for us to reset and stop that domino effect.”

Aviation analyst Robert Mann of R.W. Mann & Co., an aviation consulting firm, said Southwest’s scheduling systems have long been known to be archaic.

The system relies on manual reports that crew members give of their locations and their available time remaining to fly within a period. Relying on that information as multiple data points are changing frequently during a significant disruption can cause problems across the information chain, he said.

Other airlines, Mann said, have upgraded their systems to handle disruptions more easily.

Lawmakers on Tuesday called on Southwest to compensate passengers whose cancellations were caused by problems within the airline’s internal systems. In a joint statement, Sens. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), members of the Senate Commerce Committee, said Southwest failed customers during the year’s most important week of travel.

“As Southwest executives have acknowledged, the mass cancellations yesterday were largely due to the failure of its own internal systems,” they said.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, said her committee will look into the cause of Southwest’s disruptions, as well as whether consumer protections related to air travel need to be strengthened.

According to the Transportation Department, Southwest has a standing pledge with the federal government to redress cancellations caused by issues within the company’s control, including free hotel accommodations for passengers stranded overnight because of a cancellation.

The reasons for the delays were of little comfort to passengers whose plans were overturned.

Yata Watts, 50, a tax preparer and real estate agent who lives near Houston, was leaving about 3:30 a.m. Friday to catch an early morning flight to Fort Lauderdale with her three children when she got a notification that they were rebooked for a 3:45 p.m. departure. That flight also was canceled.

With their Royal Caribbean cruise set to sail at 4 p.m. that day, the timing wouldn’t work. She found a United flight for the family, shelling out another $1,000 for tickets. They made it onto the cruise and planned to return home Tuesday, but she was notified on Monday night that her flight home — with a connection in New Orleans — was also canceled.

“They’re not giving any options to rebook at all,” she said. She had to pay another $1,000 to fly United back home on Thursday. She and her children, ages 11, 13 and 17, are passing time in a South Florida hotel. She plans to submit a refund request to Southwest for her canceled flights and the extra expenses incurred.

Southwest passengers who called customer service lines early this week to speak to a company representative were on hold for hours. The airline’s website and app — warning of extended wait times — urged customers to speak with gate agents at airports, where some waited hours longer.

On Christmas evening at Reagan National Airport, customers stood in line more than three hours to speak to employees about rebooking flights. As tensions rose, customers complained that they couldn’t recover luggage that had been checked in before flights were canceled. On Tuesday, rows of luggage from Southwest passengers could be seen in the terminal at National.

It seems everyone is mad at airlines. Fall could bring calmer skies.

More than 22,000 domestic flights have been canceled since the winter storm swept across the country Thursday, a problem that initially affected all carriers. Of those, Southwest has canceled more than 11,000 flights during that time, continuing to reduce its schedule as other carriers have rebounded.

Buttigieg urged other airlines to cap fares on certain routes, saying it would help customers seeking to rebook flights after their Southwest flight was canceled.

Southwest’s most recent struggles follow a rocky summer that saw elevated cancellation rates industry-wide, drawing the ire of passengers, lawmakers and Buttigieg. Federal officials announced fines last month against six airlines over delayed refunds, signaling they would be watching how the holidays unfold.

The summer disruptions came as airlines struggled to ramp up hiring when travel enthusiasm rebounded during the pandemic. Southwest became the first airline to surpass 2019 employment numbers this past summer, hiring 15,700 workers this year. Airline executives had said they made reliability a priority and would be able to manage the busy holiday travel season.

In an earnings call this fall, Southwest COO Mike Van de Ven said, “I feel like we’re really set up to perform well over the holidays as we go into Thanksgiving and the Christmas season.”

Caroline Flynn, 24, was supposed to fly Friday from Norfolk, where she’s a student at Old Dominion University, to be with her family in Denver. Southwest rebooked her flight to Christmas Day, she said. After delays in Norfolk and at Chicago’s Midway International Airport, she made it to Kansas City International Airport for a scheduled layover.

Instead, the final leg of her flight was canceled.

“I started bawling in the airport,” said Flynn, a pharmacy technician. Despite piles of unclaimed bags, she discovered her luggage had gone without her to Denver, where family members picked it up.

She booked a United flight for 6 a.m. Monday instead of relying on Southwest to get her to Denver, sleeping at the airport as family members took shifts on the phone so that she felt safer. She had planned to fly Southwest back to Virginia on Friday, but instead booked a flight with American Airlines.

Rob Demske and his family, including his teenage son and daughter, planned to spend a warm Christmas in San Juan, Puerto Rico. They went to the Baltimore airport at 5 a.m. Saturday and got as far as standing up to board. Then the message came: There was no pilot to fly the plane, and the flight was canceled.

Southwest offered a flight on Thursday, but with a return scheduled for Saturday, the Potomac, Md., family didn’t think a quick-turnaround trip to Puerto Rico was practical. They waited for hours for their bags, only to be told the luggage would make the trip.

Demske, a chief development officer for a nonprofit, said the family has tried each day to learn the whereabouts of their suitcases. Beloved family items — sweatshirts from his late father that the children now use — were packed in the bags, and no one is sure if they’ll see them again.

“There’s really no path forward right now,” he said. “Nobody knows not only where the bags are, but how long the bags are going to stay wherever they are.”

Andrea Sachs and Paul Duggan contributed to this report.