One week after extreme winter weather pummeled many different parts of the country at once, chaos continues to reign at airports nationwide. Thousands of passengers — myself included — have gotten stuck amid waves of cancellations by Southwest Airlines. The company has reportedly cut over 15,700 flights since December 22, slashing 2,798 on Wednesday alone. Though Southwest CEO Bob Jordan says he’s “optimistic to be back on track before next week,” for now, the repercussions are intense and ongoing. Displaced passengers report hours-long wait times to speak to customer-service agents, endless lines at Southwest ticket counters, and a pervasive atmosphere of confusion as masses of people try to figure out how and if they can get where they need to go.
“I spent my entire vacation at the airport,” one woman, who said she wound up spending Christmas at Chicago Midway and remained marooned there for two nights there, told the New York Times. “I get a few minutes of sleep here and there but not much.”
As with summer’s air-travel shitstorm, the situation appears to be the result of a couple of overlapping factors. Beginning around December 21, there were severe winter storms pretty much everywhere: Temperatures plunged as an Arctic cold front blew across the U.S., creating wind chills well below zero in many regions. There were deadly blizzards and bomb cyclones, there was flooding, there were record-setting wind gusts, and there were mass power outages, all of which conspired to make travel a nightmare. Train service was suspended along certain routes. Roads closed under dangerous driving conditions. And between December 21 and 24, U.S. airlines canceled more than 12,000 flights.
But for Southwest, bad weather was only one part of the problem. According to NPR, the company’s particular practices have also created issues. To start, Southwest does not use the hub-and-spoke approach most airlines do, returning their planes to regional hubs. Instead, it relies on a point-to-point model, routing planes from airport to airport to airport as quick stops on one long trip. Whereas other airlines can eliminate specific flight paths when bad weather comes up, Southwest’s bus-like approach makes for a more complicated logistical web.
“You have all sorts of pilots and flight attendants that can no longer get to where they need to be because quite often flight crews are not based at the same city or they don’t live at the same city that they’re based out of,” Kathleen Bangs, a former commercial pilot and a spokesperson for FlightAware, told NPR. “So when there’s bad weather, everything tends to get out of position.” Flight crews time out. Planes don’t show up where they need to in order to complete their route. And because Southwest has apparently been relying on outdated technology, the winter storm swamped its scheduling system: CNN reports that the company had to reconfigure its flight schedule by hand. “That is a tedious, long process,” Southwest chief operating officer Andrew Watterson told employees during a Monday call, per a transcript CNN obtained. Crew schedulers would “would make great progress,” Watterson reportedly explained, “and then some other disruption would happen and it would unravel their work.” Compounding the trickiness of that seemingly Sisyphean task, Southwest’s other systems have reportedly fallen short, too. “It’s phones, it’s computers, it’s processing power, it’s the programs used to connect us to airplanes — that’s where the problem lies, and it’s systemic throughout the whole airline,” Captain Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, told CNN.
For customers, another challenging quirk is the company’s rebooking policy: As the New York Times reports, Southwest does not exchange tickets with other airlines, meaning that this week, passengers likely had to come up with alternatives themselves. As one of those passengers, I can attest to the difficulty and the expense of having to find last-minute airfare in the middle of a holiday rush, with an abruptly reduced number of flights available: After Southwest canceled my flight on Monday, I paid nearly twice the price of my original round-trip ticket to return home on Friday — the most affordable option I saw, and the most straightforward one given that Southwest’s app, website, and phone lines were nonfunctional at the time.
For what it’s worth, though, Southwest acknowledges that its meltdown is, in the airline’s words, “unacceptable.” In its most recent statement, the company offered “heartfelt apologies” to its customers and said that “on the other side of this, we’ll work to make things right for those we’ve let down, including our Employees.” It has also pledged to reimburse customers for the cost of canceled tickets and for “reasonable” expenses, including meals, accommodations, and alternate transportation — customers can submit receipts on its travel-disruption page. Contacted for comment, Southwest did not clarify what “reasonable” means in this context, but a representative said the company is “finalizing a resource to provide additional assistance to customers with reuniting with lost or missing baggage.” And while the scope of the problem has attracted attention from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which says it will investigate, it’s also worth noting that Southwest is far from the first airline to sow chaos with an impromptu service implosion. Delta has done it, American has done it, and surely we all remember the images from Heathrow’s checked-bag purgatory circa July 2022. As FlightAware spokesperson Bangs told NPR: “Unfortunately for Southwest, this holiday season has been their turn.”