Southwest’s canceled flights are under federal scrutiny

ATLANTA – Federal control is increasing. The boss apologizes to the customers.

And as the Southwest Airlines meltdown, one of the worst industry watchers have seen in decades, entered another day on Wednesday, angry customers were left stranded, separated from their families and some still carrying Christmas presents they were about to deliver days ago.

There was no relief early Wednesday: Southwest had canceled more than 2,500 flights, or 62 percent of its scheduled flights for the day, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking service. The company said it could take days to unravel the knots and resume normal service.

“I’m not mad at them,” said Tearsa Aisani Parham, who waited in a winding line at the North Terminal of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Tuesday afternoon, hoping to find a Southwest employee who would be willing to listen. “I’m mad at how they did it.”

Southwest’s operating configuration, which differs from most other major airlines, has come under intense scrutiny after a winter storm disrupted travel plans across the United States last week. While other airlines canceled flights during the storm but soon regained their footing, Southwest was uniquely unable to get its planes back airborne while thousands of customers were stranded and struggling to rebook.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Tuesday in an interview with NBC Nightly News that it was an “unacceptable situation” that would require a closer look at Southwest’s planning system.

“We all understand that you can’t control the weather,” he said, adding “that this has clearly crossed the line from an uncontrollable weather situation to something that is the direct responsibility of the airline.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell, chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, said in a statement Tuesday that the committee will investigate the causes of the meltdown and that “the problems at Southwest Airlines in recent days go beyond the weather.”

“Many airlines don’t communicate adequately with consumers during flight cancellations,” she said. “Consumers deserve strong protections, including an updated consumer refund rule.”

Southwest CEO Bob Jordan apologized to customers in a video Tuesday night, saying the “giant conundrum” of staffing 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 problems stem from the airline’s unique “point-to-point” model, in which planes tend to fly from destination to destination without returning to one or two main hubs. Most airlines follow a “hub and spoke” model, where planes typically return to a hub airport after flying to other cities.

In inclement weather, hub-and-spoke airlines may close certain routes and have plans to resume operations when skies are clear. However, inclement weather can disrupt multiple flights and routes in a point-to-point model, leaving Southwest employees unable to resume normal operations.

It leaves passengers like Ms. Parham struggling to make alternate plans and at times unable to do so.

Woman. Parham planned to spend the days after Christmas with her family at Disney World — a birthday present for one of her sons and his wife, and a Christmas present for her grandson. She flew from Atlanta to Baltimore to meet up with her eldest son, who doesn’t like flying alone, and then returned to Atlanta ahead of a Christmas Day flight to Tampa.

Her younger son and his family made it to Disney. Here, too, bags have made it to Florida.

But her Sunday flight was canceled and she spent Christmas Day at the airport. After waiting until 4:30 a.m. the next day, she said she was told she would be flying out at 6 a.m. That flight was overbooked and Ms. Parham became a standby passenger. The flight took off with their bags but without them. The next flight was delayed and then cancelled. Then another delay and another cancellation. And the flight after that? Also cancelled.

“I need my makeup,” Ms. Parham said with a laugh.

Anthony Malloy, 63, of Queens, NY, who waited in line at Atlanta airport on Tuesday, said he could not board a flight until Friday. He said he had no choice but to come to the airport after his flight home was canceled Tuesday because the Southwest customer service line was disconnected and changes were not available online.

He was keen to return home as his twin brother flew from California to meet him in New York. Mr. Malloy arrived in Atlanta a week ago to visit a friend.

“To think it has to end like this is really debilitating,” he said.

It was not Mr. Malloy’s first disappointing trip on Southwest as he was among thousands of passengers affected by delays and cancellations in June 2021. Back then he spent $98 on an Uber from a distant airport to get home to Queens and didn’t receive his luggage for 3 days. As an apology, the airline provided him with a flight voucher, which he used towards his trip to Atlanta.

“Maybe redeeming the coupon wasn’t such a good idea,” he said.

Tanya Sichynsky reported from Atlanta and Daniel Victor from London.

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