Southwest and other airlines are canceling thousands of flights in the US

After a winter storm battered many parts of the country, most airlines recovered quickly from delays and cancellations. But not Southwest Airlines, which days later is still grappling with what executives and analysts are calling the largest operational collapse in its five-decade history.

The bad weather that came a few days before Christmas hit the airline harder than the rest of the industry as the airline’s computer systems made it difficult to get crews to waiting aircraft and to move passengers to alternative flights and a flight model that could cause problems on one airport to be transferred to others.

“This is the worst round of cancellations for a single airline that I can recall in my 20+ year career as an industry analyst,” said Henry Harteveldt, airline director for the Atmosphere Research Group.

Thousands of travelers were stuck at airports, and many said Southwest did little or nothing to get them to their destinations. Southwest canceled more than 2,900 flights Monday; scrapped about 2,500 each day for the next two days, more than 60 percent of its schedule; and said it could take days to fully restore normal operations.

Fabian Maldonado, a Los Angeles construction manager who describes himself as a loyal Southwest customer, said he and his two sons took a Southwest flight Monday from Burbank, Calif. to Sacramento for a flight to Spokane, Washington , to fly. But the Spokane flight was canceled and Southwest didn’t notify him, he said.

“This is really making me rethink them,” Mr. Maldonado said. “Customer service isn’t there; it falls apart.”

In a video statement Tuesday night, Southwest CEO Bob Jordan apologized to customers. He said the airline had been unable to get flight crews to where they needed to be, compounding the impact of bad weather, and that the “giant mystery” could take days to solve.

“Our plan for the next few days is to fly a reduced flight schedule and reposition our people and aircraft,” Mr. Jordan said. “We are making progress and are optimistic of being back on track before next week.”

The Ministry of Transport said in a statement on Monday that she would look into Southwest’s problems, adding that she was concerned about the airline’s “unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays” and reports of poor customer service. On Tuesday, President Biden reposted this statement on Twitter, urging customers to check if they are entitled to compensation.

All airlines have come under fire from lawmakers and regulators over delays and cancellations since travel demand rebounded from the 2021 pandemic. Many of the industry’s problems can be traced to staffing shortages, caused in part by early retirements and takeovers that the industry offered workers after the 2020 ticket sales slump.

Lyn Montgomery, the president of the Transport Workers Union Local 556, which represents Southwest Airlines flight attendants, said she spoke with Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, on Tuesday to discuss the glitch at Southwest. She said Southwest’s technology was a major cause of the meltdown and that her union had long urged management to improve it.

“We will ensure that we hold Southwest Airlines executives accountable for what is happening so that the airline we have helped to succeed is once again reliable and stable,” Ms. Montgomery said in an interview.

Mr. Buttigieg said in a statement Tuesday he was also working with Southwest CEO Mr. Jordan.

In an interview with NBC Nightly News on Tuesday, Mr. Buttigieg said, “Where most airlines have seen their performance improve, Southwest has actually moved in the other direction,” adding, “It’s an unacceptable situation.”

Southwest became the first major airline to report a profit as the pandemic began to recede. And in a way, it turned out to be a big winner when people started flying and vacationing again.

But analysts say trouble lurked at Southwest’s operations — troubles that appeared to have upset the company when inclement weather hit late last week.

According to aviation experts, the storm had a disproportionate impact on Southwest because the company configured its network differently than the country’s other three major airlines — American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines — set up their networks.

Most airlines operate on a “hub and spoke” basis, with planes returning to a hub airport after flying to other cities — United, for example, has hubs at airports serving Newark, Houston and Denver. While Southwest has a strong presence at certain airports, it uses a “point-to-point” approach, with planes flying from destination to destination without returning to one or two main hubs.

Hub-and-spoke airlines can close certain routes during inclement weather, and with good planning, companies can have crews and aircraft on site to resume operations when conditions improve. But Southwest can’t do that easily without disrupting multiple flights and routes, Mr. Harteveldt said.

David Vernon, airline analyst at Bernstein Research, said Southwest’s approach allows the company to use its planes more in normal times, but if things go wrong, problems could spread quickly.

Of course, hub-and-spoke airlines can and do experience major problems, especially when inclement weather or other issues paralyze operations at one or more major hub airports.

Southwest, which has long prided itself on having good employee relations, has also recently struggled with staffing shortages that have most likely led to heightened tensions between management and workers, said Robert W. Mann Jr., a former executive at one airline, who now heads the consulting firm RW Mann & Company.

“Southwest definitely got the worst of it,” Mr. Mann said. “I have to think it was cultural more than anything.”

The uproar is a test for Mr. Jordan, a longtime Southwest official who took over as chief executive in February. The company’s share price closed down about 6 percent on Tuesday.

Union leaders said a major cause of Southwest’s problems was inadequate computer systems, which they said could not efficiently match crews with flights when cancellations began to pile up. “They promised that they would put time and money into infrastructure, but it wasn’t enough,” said Ms. Montgomery, the union leader. “The house of cards has fallen.”

Analysts also said Southwest has been slow to adopt new systems that would help it run its business. “Southwest has never viewed technology as a strategic priorityMr. said Harteveldt.

These and other mistakes are expected to draw the attention of officials in Washington, where lawmakers including Sen. Maria Cantwell, who chairs the Commerce Committee, on Tuesday called for stronger protections for travelers, including federal rules requiring airlines to provide refunds for travellers delayed or canceled flights to grant flights.

To make matters worse, Southwest doesn’t swap tickets with other airlines, so the company can’t rebook passengers on other flights, Mr Harteveldt said. The debacle could force the airline to “buy back” frustrated customers with deeper discounts or run more promotions, he said.

No single region or airport bore the brunt of the cancellations, although airports with a large presence in the South West were hardest hit. These airports included Denver International, Chicago Midway, Harry Reid International in Las Vegas, and Sacramento International.

It’s been almost a week since the winter storm began to devastate millions of travelers. The number of canceled flights began to rise Thursday as airlines canceled more than 2,600 of them. The next day, nearly 6,000, or about a quarter of all US flights nationwide, were canceled. Almost 3,500 flights were canceled on Saturday, Christmas Eve, and slightly fewer, around 3,200, were canceled from flight schedules on Christmas Day.

Reporting was contributed by Derrick Bryson Taylor, Daniel Victor, Shawn Hubler, Markus Walker Spirit Stephen Lohr.

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