Mass Southwest Airlines cancellations strand travelers, cause chaos at airports
Southwest Airlines canceled more than 2,900 flights Monday, disrupting holiday plans across the country, stranding passengers and causing chaos at some airports as much of the nation continued to suffer through the after-effects of a historic winter storm.
The airline blamed the extreme weather for the cancellations, adding in a statement “our heartfelt apologies for this are just beginning. ... We recognize falling short and sincerely apologize.”
Frustrated fliers, including those at Los Angeles International Airport, reported hours-long lines, lost luggage and unstaffed flights after Southwest routes were canceled or delayed — with some told not to expect a flight home for days.
The low-cost carrier had canceled nearly 70% of its scheduled flights nationwide — some 2,905 flights, far more than any other major U.S. carrier — as of Monday evening, according to the tracking site FlightAware. Among all carriers, more than 3,900 domestic and international flights were canceled, the site said.
Based on FlightAware data, LAX suffered 77 cancellations, or 9% of all its Southwest flights, and 125 delays. But it fared better than other airports across the country, including those in Sacramento, San Jose, Denver, Las Vegas and Atlanta. Sacramento saw 45% of its flights canceled, and San Jose 29%.
The U.S. Department of Transportation said Monday afternoon that it was “concerned by Southwest’s unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays,” as well as reports of a “lack of prompt customer service.”
“The Department will examine whether cancellations were controllable and if Southwest is complying with its customer service plan,” the agency said in a tweet.
As departure screens in airports across the country lit up with delays and cancellations, travelers looked around for other ways to reach their family and friends. Some scrambled for rental cars, opting to make long drives instead of waiting it out at the airport.
What was supposed to be an hour-and-a-half flight from Sacramento to Los Angeles on Monday for Matt Grippi turned into a six-hour drive. He was rushing to make an international flight scheduled for Tuesday and didn’t trust Southwest to get him to LAX in time.
His only options were layovers as long as 26 hours costing thousands of dollars, he said.
“Every single possible flight that I could’ve taken today to get home was canceled,” Grippi said. “Communication from Southwest has been horrendous. Not sure I can ever trust them again.”
Monday’s cancellations follow days of other travel disruptions from a nearly unprecedented weather event that stretched from the Great Lakes to the Rio Grande. About 60% of the U.S. population faced some sort of winter weather advisory or warning, and temperatures plummeted drastically below normal from east of the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians. Nationwide, the storm was blamed for at least 50 deaths.
Travelers’ weather woes are likely to continue, with hundreds of flight cancellations already and more expected after a bomb cyclone — when atmospheric pressure drops very quickly in a strong storm — stirred up blizzard conditions, including heavy winds and snow.
In a statement Monday, Southwest Airlines pointed to “extreme winter weather” across the country and called the disruptions “unacceptable.”
The National Weather Service predicts rainfall and strong winds starting Tuesday and lasting through Wednesday in the Los Angeles area.
The Dallas-based airline said it was “fully staffed and prepared” for the holiday weekend, but that “operational conditions” caused by the inclement weather sweeping most of the country “forced daily changes to our flight schedule at a volume and magnitude that still has the tools our teams use to recover the airline operating at capacity.”
The company said it was working to re-position flight crews in order to “return to normal reliability,” but signaled that flights could continue to see changes through the New Year’s holiday.
“On the other side of this, we’ll work to make things right for those we’ve let down, including our employees,” Southwest said.
But the president of the union that represents the company’s flight attendants told the Dallas Morning News that the “complete and utter chaos” wasn’t due to a lack of staffing, but rather to Southwest’s “archaic, outdated systems.”
On Sunday, Southwest Chief Executive Bob Jordan told company employees in a message that it might take a few more days to get back on track, the Wall Street Journal reported.
As the delays and cancellations piled up, call times to the airline’s customer service lines were on average more than two hours, with some callers having to wait as long as four hours to speak with a representative, the company said.
A TikTok user’s post showed a video of a terminal at San Diego International Airport teeming with passengers waiting to speak with Southwest representatives. The caption read, “San Diego Airport is WILDDD. 8 hour line to speak to Southwest attendants.”
Randy Silver, 29, said he recorded the video on Christmas Day, after arriving from Sacramento, where he had spent the holidays with his girlfriend’s family. Fortunately, he said, his flight was delayed for only about 20 minutes leaving Sacramento. But upon arriving in San Diego, he and the other passengers were forced to sit on the tarmac for about an hour because no gates were available at which the plane could unload.
He said he was shocked by the delirious scene that awaited him once he got off the plane, saying he had never seen San Diego airport that busy before.
“You could definitely tell people who were standing in the line waiting to talk to flight attendants were annoyed, frustrated, stressed, disappointed with what was happening,” said Silver, who flies frequently for his job in tech sales.
And while he recognized that other travelers had a much harder time than he did, he said he also understood why some airlines were declining to fly if it wasn’t safe to do so.
“It’s really unfortunate [that] a once-in-a-generation type of storm happened to hit during the biggest travel day of the year,” he said. “As much as people want to be with family and friends, I’d always want to err on the side of safety and caution.”
All Southwest Airlines flights out of San Diego were canceled late Monday afternoon. The majority of all Southwest Airlines flights scheduled to arrive in San Diego, with the exception of one plane coming from Honolulu, were also canceled, according to the San Diego International Airport’s website.
Including Southwest and all other airlines, there were at least 90 canceled flights and at least 51 delayed flights Monday at San Diego International Airport, representing about 42% of all flights on the busy travel day, according to FlightAware.
Maya Polon was one of the few Southwest customers to make it out of the Hollywood Burbank Airport on Monday after her original flight on Sunday was canceled twice. She spent three hours at the airport trying to get a new flight after the Southwest website and app failed.
“The only way to get re-booked was to go to the airport and speak to a human,” said Polon, 28.
Meanwhile, her mother, Emily Payne, was on hold with Southwest for four hours, trying to help her. Polon successfully got a flight back to Sacramento by 2 p.m., but some of her fellow hopeful passengers were told they would not get a flight home until at least Wednesday, she said.
Polon said at the scene people were angry, and police got involved in an altercation between one passenger and Southwest staff.
The Associated Press and the San Diego Union-Tribune contributed to this report.
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