It’s 90:00 Chaos Time! How Southwest Airlines’ Cancellations Flew US Into a Travel Debacle

Travelers relying on Southwest Airlines faced another wave of canceled flights Wednesday as pressure mounted on the US government to help customers obtain reimbursement for unexpected expenses resulting from the airline’s slump.

Many weary Southwest passengers attempted to find seats on other airlines or rent cars to get to their destinations, but many were left stranded. According to the CEO of the airline, the flight schedule may not be normal till next week.

a southwest chaos

Adontis Barber, a jazz pianist from Kansas City, Missouri, camped out at the city’s airport after his Southwest flight was canceled on Saturday, hoping to spend New Year’s Eve in Washington, D.C. But will participate in the program.

He left from his airport vigilance on Wednesday. “I’m done,” he told The Associated Press. “I’m starting to feel like I’m homeless.”

As of noon on the East Coast, Southwest accounted for nearly 90% of all canceled flights in the United States on Wednesday, according to the FlightAware tracking service.

Other airlines were able to recover from severe winter storms that lashed large areas of the country over the weekend but not the southwest, which canceled 2,500 flights on Wednesday and 2,300 on Thursday.

Why did this happen?

A combination of factors, including an antiquated crew-scheduling system and a network design that allowed cancellations to quickly cascade across an area across the country, doomed the Dallas airline. These flaws are not new; He contributed to the failure of South West in October 2021.

The United States Department of Transportation is now looking into what happened at Southwest, which moves more passengers within the United States than any other airline. A Senate committee has also promised to look into the matter.

Southwest CEO Robert Jordan said in a video posted late Tuesday that the airline will operate on a reduced schedule for several days, but hopes to be “back on track before next week.”

“We have a lot of work to do to get it right,” said Jordan, a 34-year Southwest veteran who took over as CEO in February. ,

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who previously punished airlines for past disruptions, said “meltdown” was the only word to describe this week’s events at Southwest. 60% in the Southwest.

From the high rate of cancellations to Southwest’s inability to reach customers by phone, Buttigieg said the airline’s performance has been unacceptable. He promised to press for holding the airline accountable and reimbursing passengers.

“They need to make sure that stranded travelers get where they need to go and that they are provided with adequate compensation,” he said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” ​​on Wednesday.

What will Southwest need to do now?

Robert Mann, an aviation consultant and former airline executive, told The Associated Press that the Department of Transportation could order Southwest to pay refunds for all flights canceled due to factors beyond the airline’s control, such as staffing shortages. Is. He estimated that 6,000 cancellations would affect 1 million customers and cost $300 million.

“The numbers are not life-threatening, although the brand damage has been done,” Mann said, referring to plans to pay out $428 million in shareholder dividends next month.

Some consumer advocates believe the government will not penalize Southwest.

The Department of Transportation fined Frontier Airlines and several foreign carriers for slow refunds at the start of the pandemic, but not the four largest US airlines, according to William McGee, a travel expert at the American Economic Liberties Project.

McGee said, “It’s probably hard to say what Pete Buttigieg should do and what he would do.”

Southwest advised customers whose flights were canceled or delayed between December 24 and January 2 to submit receipts. “We will honor reasonable requests for reimbursement for meals, hotels and alternate transportation,” the airline said.

After being on hold for two days, Navy physician Lt. Cdr. Manoj Mathew said Southwest reimbursed him for the first leg of his family’s trip from Washington to Houston — which he drove in terrible weather after his Dec. 23 flight was canceled. They now worry about whether Southwest will operate a return flight on Sunday.

“I’m trying to contact other airlines,” he told The Associated Press. “There are no flights, and it is prohibitively expensive for us.”

Delta Air Lines announced weekend fare caps in Southwest markets, and American Airlines announced fare caps in “select” cities as well. Neither provided numbers.

crew-scheduling system

Southwest labor union leaders have warned for years that the airline’s crew-scheduling system, which dates to the 1990s, was falling behind as route maps became more complex.

“This is not the same airline that (Southwest co-founder) Herb Kelleher created, where planes flew point-to-point,” Randy Barnes, president of the union representing Southwest ground workers, said on Wednesday. Said. “If airline executives had planned better, the recent meltdown could have been minimized or avoided.”

Other major US airlines operate “hub and spoke” networks, in which flights originate from a few major or hub airports and branch out. This helps limit the impact of disruptions caused by severe weather in some parts of the country.

Southwest, on the other hand, operates a “point-to-point” network in which aircraft cross the country during the day. This can increase the utility and efficiency of each aircraft, but problems in one location can spread across the country, becoming trapped. Crew out of position. (Crews can also be stranded on hub-and-spoke airlines.)

These issues don’t explain all of the complaints lodged by stranded travelers about Southwest, including an inability to reach the airline by phone and a lack of assistance at hotels and meals.

With inputs from The Associated Press

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