Southwest Airlines cancels thousands of flights after winter snowstorm

The winter storm that upset thousands of travel plans over the weekend has resulted in an epic spate of flight cancellations for Southwest Airlines, leaving thousands of families stranded waiting a few days to fly home.

According to flight-tracking website FlightAware, two-thirds of Southwest’s flights had been canceled as of Monday afternoon — far more than any other airline. With about 2,700 Southwest flights canceled, another 700 were delayed Monday, FlightAware found.

On Monday afternoon, the board at Dallas Love Field, the airline’s main hub, showed every single arrival had been canceled, according to reporter Kelly Laco.

The airline canceled more than 1,600 flights on Sunday and 1,300 flights each on Thursday and Friday last week.

The federal Department of Transportation said Monday it would investigate the meltdown and said it was “concerned by Southwest Airlines’ disproportionate and unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays, as well as its failure to provide adequate assistance to customers who experience a cancellation or delay.”

“As more information becomes available, the Department will closely review whether cancellations were controllable and whether Southwest is complying with its customer service plan and any other relevant DOT rules,” the Department said in a statement.

Traveler Michael Bauzon and his family were scheduled to depart Orlando International Airport on Friday in order to return to Indianapolis on Sunday in time for Christmas. Instead, the four spent the vacation at a hotel after their flight was canceled, Bauzon told CBS affiliate WKMG, and were back at the airport Monday — where they continued to wait.

“This morning we got here at 4:30 for a 7:05 flight, we checked and oh it had just been cancelled,” he said, pointing to a line forming outside the Southwest service desk meandered. “It’s a four to five hour line … before they can get us on a flight — if they can get us on a flight,” he said.

Widespread storm, outdated technology

In a statement Monday that opened with “sincere apologies,” Southwest said its geography made it “uniquely” vulnerable to the storm, with half of the airports it flies at being affected by the winter weather.

“We were fully staffed and prepared for the approaching holiday weekend as the severe weather swept across the continent, where Southwest is the largest airline in 23 of the top 25 travel markets in the US. This forced daily changes to our flight schedule on a large scale and scale, which still has the tools our teams are using to restore the airline’s capacity utilization levels,” the statement said.

“We expect additional changes with an already reduced flight offer as we approach the upcoming New Year holiday travel season,” it said.

The company also blames a lack of technology. “Part of what we suffer is a lack of tools. We’ve talked a lot about modernizing operations and the need to do that,” CEO Bob Jordan said in an internal message Sunday, reported by multiple media outlets and the flight attendants’ union.

Blocked phone lines, systems

Southwest steered customers away from blocked phone lines, noting there were “system issues” amid increased demand.

Spokesman Chris Perry said the airline’s online booking and check-in systems were still operational but were also blocked due to “abnormally high” levels of traffic on its website. “We will be re-accommodating as many customers as we can based on the space available,” he told CBS News.

While Southwest blamed technology problems, the flight attendants’ union, Transit Workers Union 556, accused the airline of contributing to the problem by years of underinvestment in technology.

“The lack of technology has meant the airline has had to rely on manual solutions and personal phone calls, leaving flight attendants on hold for up to 17 hours at a time at Southwest Airlines to be simply discharged home after their trip, or during they were trying to secure a hotel room or know where their next trip will be,” the union said in a statement. “While diversions and rescheduling are considered part of the job in the airline industry, the massive scale of the outage over the past few days is suggestive points out that for many years it shirks the responsibility of investing in and implementing technology that could help solve many of the problems that plague flight attendants and passengers alike.”

The union and the airline have been in contract negotiations for four years.

— With reports by Zel Elvi, Kathryn Krupnik and Kris Van Cleave. Southwest Airlines cancels thousands of flights after winter snowstorm

Rick Schindler

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