A winter storm that disrupted thousands of travel plans over the weekend created an epic string of flight cancellations for Southwest Airlines, leaving thousands of families stranded and some waiting days to get home.
Two-thirds of Southwest flights were canceled as of Monday afternoon, according to the flight-tracking website FlightAvare — far more than any other airline. With about 2,700 Southwest flights canceled, another 700 were delayed Monday, FlightAvare found.
On Monday afternoon, a sign at Dallas Love Field, the airline’s main hub, indicated that every arrival had been canceled, according to reporter Kelly Lako.
The airline canceled more than 1,600 flights on Sunday, and 1,300 each day last week on Thursday and Friday.
Passenger Michael Bauzon and his family planned to fly out of Orlando International Airport on Friday to return home to Indianapolis in time for Christmas on Sunday. Instead, the four spent the holidays in a hotel after their flight was canceled, Bauzon told CBS affiliate VKMG, and returned to the airport Monday — where they continued to wait.
“We got here at 4:30 this morning for a 7:05 flight, we looked it up and it was just canceled,” he said, pointing to the line snaking outside the Southwest service desk. “It’s a four to five hour line … before they get us on the flight — if they can get us on the flight,” he said.
Widespread storm, outdated technology
In a statement Monday that began with “sincere apologies,” Southwest said its geography made it “uniquely” vulnerable to the storm, with half of the airports it flies to affected by winter weather.
“We were fully booked and prepared for the upcoming holiday weekend when severe weather hit the continent, where Southwest is the largest carrier in 23 of the top 25 US travel markets.” “This has forced daily changes to our flight schedule at a volume and size that still has the tools our teams are using to restore the airline to operating at full capacity,” the statement said.
“We anticipate further changes to the already reduced number of flights as we approach the upcoming New Year holiday travel period,” the statement said.
The company also blames a lack of technology. “Part of what we’re suffering from is a lack of tools. We’ve talked a lot about modernizing the operation and the need to do that,” CEO Bob Jordan said in an internal message Sunday that was carried by several media outlets and the flight attendant union.
Jammed phone lines, systems
Southwest steered customers away from jammed phone lines, noting there were “systemic issues” amid increased demand.
Spokesman Chris Perry said the airline’s online booking and check-in systems were still working but were also stuck due to an “abnormally high” volume of traffic on its website. “We are re-accommodating as many customers as possible based on available space,” he told CBS News.
As Southwest blamed technology problems, the flight attendants union, Transit Workers Union 556, accused the airline of contributing to the problem by underinvesting in technology for years.
“The lack of technology has left the airline relying on manual solutions and personal phone calls, leaving flight attendants on hold with Southwest Airlines for up to 5 hours at a time to simply be released home after a trip, or while they try to secure a hotel room or know where will their next trip be,” the union said in a statement. “While it is understood that rerouting and scheduling are part of the business of the airline industry, the sheer volume of failures over the past few days points to a shirking of responsibility over many years to invest in and implement technology that could help solve the many issues plaguing both flight attendants and passengers.”
The union and the airline have been in contract negotiations for four years.
— With reporting by Zel Elvia and Katherine Krupnik.