Southwest Airlines meltdown worsens, stranding passengers

Travelers stranded by the Southwest Airlines meltdown have had to wait for days as the airline struggles to rebuild systems hit by holiday storms and face mounting anger and scrutiny by Congress and federal agencies over how the debacle went has happened.

Thousands were stuck Tuesday, many with few other options and Southwest said new flights may not be available for several days.

Airlines canceled more than 2,800 flights as of Tuesday morning, most of them — 2,526 flights — with Southwest Airlines, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware.

In California, hundreds of flights were delayed or canceled through the end of the week – making up much of the Southwest’s flight schedule.

Passengers sat curbside at Los Angeles International Airport, and dozens of flyers stood at the Hollywood Burbank Airport rental car counter, and nearly 100 others waited inside and outside the facility.

Southwest Chief Executive Bob Jordan told The Wall Street Journal that the airline plans to operate at about a third of its regular capacity to regroup and get the flight schedule back on track.

“This is the biggest event I’ve ever seen,” he said.

All flights were listed as unavailable on the company’s website Tuesday morning. In an email, Southwest spokesman Chris Perry said inventory for booking travel was “very low” but flights were still operating.

Andy Robinson was waiting at the Southwest Terminal for a hotel voucher after his flight home to Denver was cancelled. Robinson, who was in LA 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 Thursday, but it was plagued by cancellations and other delays.

“I try to look at it positively. I’m in California,” said Robinson, whose relative suggested they go to Denver. “I wear 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 mobile flight tracker Flightview. Orange County’s John Wayne Airport had 51 outbound Southwest flights canceled and seven delayed Tuesday morning, while San Diego saw some of the biggest disruptions, with 89 outbound Southwest flights canceled and 28 delayed, according to FlightAware.

Despite paying $60 for early check-in, Roger and Jane Truesdale were among hundreds of passengers Tuesday at Burbank whose flights were canceled and told they could not depart until Saturday at the earliest.

But the Estes Park, Colorado couple, who were in town to visit their son over the vacation, didn’t pack enough medication for the week. They looked at other airlines, they said, and realized that renting a car or taking a bus wasn’t an option.

“It’s not ideal,” said Roger Truesdale, 77, “but we have to go home and hopefully we can find a good replacement.”

A flight board displays canceled flights at the Southwest Airlines terminal at LAX.

A flight board displays canceled flights at the Southwest Airlines terminal at LAX.

(Eugene Garcia/Associated Press)

Southwest Airlines blamed the cancellations on a disastrous winter storm that swept across the northern half of the country over the bank holiday weekend, adding that “our sincere apologies for this is just beginning.” … We recognize that we have fallen short and we sincerely apologize.”

But US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the weather wasn’t the only factor that led to the collapse of Southwest Airlines.

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

Sense. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), members of the Senate Commerce Committee, said Southwest shouldn’t be able to claim flight cancellations were caused by the recent winter storms, which would allow them to avoid paying travelers.

The compensation should include not only rebooked flights, refunds, hotel, meals and transportation, but also “significant monetary compensation for disrupting their vacation plans,” the two senators said in a statement.

The Southwest meltdown reached the Oval Office, and President Biden wrote on Twitter that airlines would be held responsible and referred injured travelers to the Department of Transportation’s website to see if they were entitled to compensation.

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

The US Department of Transportation also said it was concerned about the “unacceptable” number of cancellations and would investigate whether the cancellations were controllable.

Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said Tuesday that the committee will study the causes of the disruptions and their impact on consumers.

“The issues at Southwest Airlines over the past few days go beyond the weather,” Cantwell said in a statement. “Many airlines fail to communicate adequately with consumers in the event of 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 LAX’s Southwest Terminal on Tuesday morning to get a refund and retrieve her family’s luggage. Her luggage was flown to LA, although she and her children, ages 9 and 12, were unable to catch a flight.

But Schelter suggested a refund: A Southwest Airlines ticket seller said they couldn’t help her and offered travel vouchers instead. “I will now proceed with my vacation and will probably spend hours on the phone with customer service to get this corrected,” Schelter said.

Angry and tired travelers Southwest flooded on Twitter with reports from wait in long lines that extended outside the airport terminals, missing baggage that in some cases traveled further despite canceled flights piled up unused for days, waiting on customer service calls for hours or keeps disconnectingand try to navigate a broken website.

Some passengers said they have not received received an email or SMS about the status of their flight and instead found out through a message on the company’s app, from Flight Aware, or from family and friends.

Maria Valenciano Ramos and her husband Geronima Ramos Jr. were scheduled 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 at customer service just to have their rebooked flight cancelled.

Desperate, they drove to the airport’s Southwest Terminal on Tuesday morning and ended up rebooking their trip for January. 1, the earliest available flight, with no set return date. Other airlines with a similar route charged up to $1,600 more per ticket, Geronima Ramos Jr. said.

“It changed our entire schedule, our entire holiday,” said Valenciano Ramos.

Newly elected LA County Supervisor Lindsey Horvath was stranded in Las Vegas after her Southwest flight back to Los Angeles was cancelled. she said on Twitter monday evening

“Because @SouthwestAir My only chance of getting home is to spend over $400 one way on another airline and arrive [Tuesday] in the afternoon (& cancel vet appt & mtgs work). U.N. Real. Who can afford this? Non-working families or young people who can go home on vacation once a year,” Horvath said in a tweet.

Many also questioned the airline’s statement that the weather was the culprit. highlight that other airlines were operating with less disruption and that part of the problem could be a staffing issue.

The Dallas-based airline said it was “fully staffed and prepared” for the holiday weekend, but “operating conditions” caused by inclement weather that gripped most of the country “forced daily changes to our flight schedule on a massive scale.” and scale, that still has the tools our teams are using to restore the airline to capacity utilization.”

The debilitating winter storm hit two of the Southwest’s largest hubs, Chicago and Denver, particularly hard.

The U.S. Department of Transportation said Monday afternoon it was “concerned about Southwest’s unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays” and reports of a “lack of prompt customer service”.

“The Department will review whether cancellations were manageable and whether Southwest is complying with its customer service plan,” the agency said in a tweet.

Times editors Sarah Wire and Courtney Subramanian contributed to this report.

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