Advertisement

Stranded Southwest fliers face days of waiting as anger, scrutiny over meltdown grow

Travelers wait in line inside the Southwest terminal at LAX.
Travelers wait in line inside the Southwest Airlines terminal at Los Angeles International Airport.
(Eugene Garcia / Associated Press)
Share

Travelers stranded by the meltdown at Southwest Airlines face days of waiting as the airline struggles to rebuild systems battered by holiday storms and faces growing anger and scrutiny from Congress and federal regulators about how the debacle happened.

Thousands remained stuck Tuesday, with many left with few other travel options and Southwest saying new flights might not be available for several days.

Airlines canceled more than 5,000 flights as of Tuesday evening, the majority of them — 2,672 flights — with Southwest Airlines, according to the flight tracking website FlightAware.

Advertisement

In California, hundreds of flights have been delayed or canceled through the end of the week — making up much of the Southwest schedule.

Airlines cancel more than 2,800 flights Tuesday morning, the majority of them with Southwest. At LAX, the cancellations and delays create misery.

Dec. 28, 2022

Passengers sat curbside at Los Angeles International Airport, and dozens of fliers lined up at the rental car counter at Hollywood Burbank Airport, with nearly 100 more waiting inside and outside the facility.

Southwest Chief Executive Bob Jordan told the Wall Street Journal that the airline planned to operate at around one-third of regular capacity as it tries to regroup and get the schedule back on track.

“This is the largest-scale event that I’ve ever seen,” he said.

All flights showed as unavailable on the company’s website Tuesday morning. In an email, Southwest spokesperson Chris Perry said that inventory to book travel is “very low,” but flights are still operating.

In a video posted to Twitter shortly after 5 p.m., Jordan apologized and said the airline is doing everything it can “to return to a normal operation.”

Advertisement

The chief executive said brutal winter storms that swept across the county “brought challenges for all airlines,” and that Southwest’s operations count on all pieces, especially aircraft and crews, “remaining in motion to where they’re planned to go.”

With airplanes and flight crews out of position in dozens of locations, and after trying to operate as much of the flight schedule as possible over the Christmas holiday weekend, the airline “reached a decision point” to reduce flights in order to catch up, Jordan said. The airline is focused on safely getting all needed pieces back into position.

“The tools we use to recover from disruption serve us well 99% of the time, but clearly, we need to double down on our already existing plans to upgrade systems for these extreme circumstances so that we never again face what’s happening right now,” he said.

Southwest will fly a reduced schedule for the next few days and will reposition crews and airplanes, Jordan said. The airline is optimistic that operations will be “back on track before next week.”

Andy Robinson waited in line at the Southwest terminal for a hotel voucher after his flight home to Denver was canceled. Robinson, who had been in L.A. with his family to watch the Denver Broncos play the Rams at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood on Christmas Day, managed to snag a flight home on Thursday, but it is getting jostled by cancellations and other delays.

Advertisement

“I’m trying to look at it positively. I’m in California,” said Robinson, whose relative suggested they drive to Denver. “I’m in flip-flops.”

Elsewhere in Southern California, 18 outbound Southwest flights — or two-thirds of its services — were canceled at Hollywood Burbank Airport on Tuesday, according to the mobile flight tracker Flightview. John Wayne Airport in Orange County had 51 outbound Southwest flights canceled and seven delayed Tuesday morning, while San Diego saw some of the biggest disruptions, with 89 departing Southwest flights canceled and 28 delayed, according to FlightAware.

Despite paying $60 for an early check-in, Roger and Jane Truesdale were among the hundreds of passengers at Burbank on Tuesday whose flights were canceled and were told the earliest they could fly out was Saturday.

But the Estes Park, Colo., couple, in town to visit their son for the holidays, did not pack enough medicine to last through the week. They were looking at other air carriers, they said, noting that renting a car or taking a bus wasn’t an option.

“It isn’t ideal,” said Roger Truesdale, 77, “but we have to get back home and hopefully we’ll find a good substitute.”

A flight board shows canceled flights at the Southwest Airlines terminal at LAX.
(Eugene Garcia / Associated Press)
Advertisement

Southwest Airlines blamed a catastrophic winter storm that swept across the northern half of the country over the holiday weekend for the cancellations, adding in a statement that “our heartfelt apologies for this are just beginning. ... We recognize falling short and sincerely apologize.”

But U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said weather was not the only factor that led to the Southwest Airlines meltdown.

“While we all understand that you can’t control the weather, this has clearly crossed the line from what’s an uncontrollable weather situation to something that is the airline’s direct responsibility,” he told reporters.

Sens. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), members of the Senate Commerce Committee, said Southwest should not be able to claim flight cancellations were caused by recent winter storms, which would allow the airline to avoid reimbursing travelers.

Compensation should include not only rebooked flights, refunds, hotel rooms, meals and transportation, but also “significant monetary compensation for the disruption to their holiday plans,” the two senators said in a statement.

Southwest’s meltdown reached the Oval Office, with President Biden writing on Twitter that airlines would be held responsible and directing aggrieved travelers to the Department of Transportation’s website to determine whether they’re entitled to compensation.

Advertisement

“Our administration is working to ensure airlines are held accountable,” Biden tweeted Tuesday.

The Department of Transportation also said it was concerned about the “unacceptable” rate of cancellations and that it would be investigating whether they were controllable.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, said Tuesday that the committee will examine the causes of the disruptions and their effects on consumers.

“The problems at Southwest Airlines over the last several days go beyond weather,” Cantwell said in a statement. “Many airlines fail to adequately communicate with consumers during flight cancellations. Consumers deserve strong protections, including an updated consumer refund rule.”

After driving five hours from Oakland to Los Angeles on Monday after her flight was canceled, Kate Schelter waited for hours in line at the Southwest terminal at LAX on Tuesday morning attempting to obtain a refund and retrieve her family’s luggage. Her luggage was flown to L.A. even though she and her children, ages 9 and 12, were unable to catch a flight.

But Schelter struck out on a refund: A ticketing agent with Southwest Airlines said they couldn’t help her and instead offered travel vouchers. “I’m going to move forward with my vacation now and will likely get to spend hours on hold on the phone with customer service trying to rectify this,” Schelter said.

Advertisement

Furious and weary travelers flooded Southwest on Twitter with reports of waiting in long lines that extended outside airport terminals, missing luggage that in some cases traveled onward despite canceled flights or piled up unclaimed for days, waiting on customer service calls for hours or repeatedly getting disconnected, and trying to navigate a glitchy website.

Some passengers said they didn’t receive an email or text message about their flight’s status, and instead learned through a notice on the company’s app, from Flight Aware or from family and friends.

Maria Valenciano Ramos and her husband, Geronima Ramos Jr., were hoping to visit their daughter in Nashville this week, but their Southwest Airlines flight on Monday was canceled, they said. They spent three hours on hold with customer service — only to have their rebooked flight canceled.

They drove to the Southwest terminal at the airport Tuesday morning in desperation and eventually rebooked their travel for Jan. 1, the soonest available flight, with no return date set. Other airlines running a similar route were charging up to $1,600 more per ticket, Geronima Ramos Jr. said.

“This has changed our whole schedule, our whole holidays,” Valenciano Ramos said.

Newly elected L.A. County Supervisor Lindsey Horvath was left stranded in Las Vegas after her flight on Southwest back to Los Angeles was canceled, she said on Twitter on Monday evening.

“Because of @SouthwestAir my only chance at getting home is to spend $400+ one way on another airline & arrive [Tuesday] afternoon (& cancel vet appt & work mtgs). Un. Real. Who can afford this? Not working families or young people who get to go home once a year for holidays,” Horvath said in a tweet.

Advertisement

Many also questioned the airline’s statement that the weather was the culprit, pointing out that other airlines were operating with fewer disruptions and that part of the problem could be a staffing issue.

The Dallas airline has 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 paralyzing winter storm hit two of Southwest’s biggest hubs particularly hard, Chicago and Denver.

The 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.

Times staff writers Gregory Yee, Sarah Wire and Courtney Subramanian contributed to this report.

Advertisement