Dallas-based Southwest Airlines apologized to customers Monday after canceling more than 2,700 flights across the country — more than two-thirds of its schedule — as it tries to recover from an operational collapse that dates back to Thursday’s arctic storm.
Chief Operating Officer Andrew Watterson said in a memo to employees Monday night that the carrier is cutting two-thirds of its flights in the coming days to try to get flight attendants and pilots back in position to resume operations. It’s a move that could help stabilize operations, but will also reduce flight options for thousands of stranded passengers heading into another busy travel week.
Southwest has canceled more than 8,000 flights since Thursday and suspended flights for Tuesday to get planes, flight attendants and pilots to the right places to fly. About a third of Southwest’s flights in and out of Dallas Love Field, about 300 in all, were canceled Monday, according to Flightaware.com.
“It’s been complete and utter chaos,” said Lyn Montgomery, president of TWU Local 556, the union that represents Southwest flight attendants. “This is not a staffing issue, it has nothing to do with flight attendants not being able to work, it has to do with archaic, outdated systems.”
The delays and cancellations prompted the U.S. Department of Transportation to announce Monday night that Southwest would investigate how it handled the situation and responded to customers.
“USDOT is concerned about Southwest’s unacceptable cancellation and delay rate and reports of lack of prompt customer service,” the agency said on Twitter. “The department will investigate whether the cancellations were manageable and consistent with Southwest’s customer service plan.”
Southwest passengers Jessica Bienert and her 15-year-old son, Will, were stranded at Dallas Love Field overnight on Christmas Day before renting a car to return home.
After arriving in Dallas for a connecting flight around 3:30 p.m., the airline successively delayed the flight to its final destination for several hours and finally canceled it after midnight. Mother and son spent a sleepless Sunday night sitting in a long line in an airport corridor – hoping to rebook their flight to Albuquerque, NM, where they planned to go skiing.
“It’s become a disaster zone because I’ve never seen an airport that’s still so full at 1 in the morning,” he said.
The 45-year-old mother, a frequent flyer for work, said she was unable to rebook the flight on Southwest’s app or website.
“Everything was broken, so you could only talk to the ticket agent and the lines were crazy,” he said. “They would only have one person at the ticket desk.”
Arriving at the ticket booth at 6 a.m., Biernet told Little Rock he wanted to go home. He arrived at the Budget kiosk early in the morning to rent a car and returned home around 2.30pm on Monday.
“It was kind of a sad Christmas,” he said. “I watched old ladies cry, collapse and all the families with children at the airport. “My heart hurt more because of the people around me.”
So far, the airline has not paid Biernet for any of its flights. The duo’s baggage still remains at Love Field.
Southwest blamed cold weather systems that swept across the country late last week and brought freezing conditions to Denver and Chicago, two of the company’s biggest markets.
“With consecutive days of extreme winter weather on our network, the ongoing issues are having a significant impact on our customers and employees, which is unacceptable,” Southwest said. “And for that, our heartfelt apologies are just beginning.”
But while other airlines, including Chicago-based United and Fort Worth-based American Airlines, have struggled with cancellations in those days, only a handful of carriers are still recording heavy cancellations after five days.
According to information, more than 3,700 flights were canceled in the United States on Monday flyaware.com, the vast majority of which are tied to Southwest Airlines. Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, which has canceled more than 7,000 flights since Thursday, began to see operations improve dramatically on Monday. About 9% of Delta’s total of 273 flights were canceled on Monday.
Southwest CEO Bob Jordan has said in recent months that the company has had to make major improvements to its technology infrastructure to avoid large-scale cancellations, particularly those involving flight attendants and pilots.
In a memo sent to employees Sunday, Watterson said Southwest’s systems are “overmatched in situations of this magnitude.”
“Large problems created by many moving variables overwhelm the systems trying to solve them,” Watterson said in the memo. “While we need automation to recover something of this scale, automation in some functions also develops problems that require troubleshooting and troubleshooting, which require manual workarounds until they are resolved.”
Union leaders say any investments and minor changes made so far have not resulted in improvement. Flight attendants were on hold for eight to 12 hours trying to get rescheduled, Montgomery said.
Thousands of flight attendants across the country have lost sleep over hotel room bookings, especially flight rerouting.
Meanwhile, a growing number of pilots and flight attendants are reporting fatigue from long trips and delays, adding to problems across the country.
“They’re trying to stop the dominoes from falling,” Montgomery said. “We have another big travel holiday around the corner with New Year’s Eve.”
Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said hundreds of pilots across the country are hoping to get on the flights, but they’re having trouble reaching Southwest’s scheduling team. In some cases, pilots show up at airports and management checks to see who’s there, Murray said.
“Not only do we have them tasked, but planning doesn’t know where they are,” Murray said.
Randy Barnes, who heads the TWU Local 555 union that covers Southwest’s ground and landing workers, said the company is flying workers to overworked stations in Denver and Chicago.
“While everyone else is coming inside from these storms and cold weather, our people are outside rushing through these storms,” Barnes said. “But the more we’re out there, the more time it takes to come and warm up. because no human body can stay outside for very long in these subzero temperatures and single digit temperatures.
Southwest has already canceled about 10% of its schedule on Tuesday, with more cancellations likely.
“This safety-first work is intentional, ongoing, and necessary to return to normal reliability, minimizing last-minute concerns,” Southwest said in a statement. “As we approach the upcoming New Year holiday travel period, we expect further changes with already reduced flight levels. And we try to contact customers whose travel plans will change with specific information and their available options.”
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