Southwest Airlines again canceled thousands of flights on Tuesday in the wake of the huge winter storm that ruined Christmas travel plans in the US, and the federal government said it would investigate why the company fell so far behind other airlines.
A day after most U.S. carriers recovered from the storm, Southwest canceled about 2,600 additional flights on the East Coast by late afternoon. Those flights accounted for more than 80% of the 3,000 trips canceled nationwide on Tuesday, according to tracking service FlightAware.
And the chaos seemed certain to continue. The airline also canceled 2,500 flights for Wednesday and more than 2,300 for Thursday as it attempted to restore order to its garbled schedule.
In a video Southwest posted late Tuesday, CEO Robert Jordan said Southwest would be on a reduced schedule for several days, but hoped to be “back on track before next week.”
Jordan blamed the winter storm for grunting the airline’s “highly complex” network. He said Southwest’s tools to recover from disruptions “work 99% of the time, but clearly we need to double down” on upgrading systems to avoid a repeat this week.
“We have real work to do to rectify this,” said Jordan, a 34-year Southwest veteran who became CEO in February. “For now, I want you to know that we’re committed to that.”
Lyn Montgomery, president of the Transport Workers Union representing Southwest’s flight attendants, said she and other union leaders have repeatedly told management that the airline’s scheduling technology isn’t good enough.
“This is something we saw coming,” she said. “This is a very catastrophic event.”
The airline is now attracting unwanted attention from Washington.
The transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, who has criticized airlines for previous disruptions, said his agency would investigate the causes of Southwest’s widespread cancellations and whether the airline was meeting its legal obligations to stranded customers.
“While we all understand that you can’t control the weather, this has clearly crossed the line from what constitutes an uncontrollable weather situation to something that is the direct responsibility of the airline,” Buttigieg told NBC Nightly News. At a minimum, he said Southwest should pay cash refunds for canceled flights and cover the hotel and meal costs of stranded passengers.
In Congress, the Senate Commerce Committee also promised an investigation. Two Senate Democrats called on Southwest to provide “significant” compensation for stranded travelers, saying the airline has the money because it plans to pay $428 million in dividends next month.
The size and severity of the storm wreaked havoc on many airlines, though the highest number of flight cancellations on Tuesday occurred at airports where Southwest is a major carrier, including Denver, Chicago Midway, Las Vegas, Baltimore and Dallas.
Spirit Airlines and Alaska Airlines both canceled about 10% of their flights, with much smaller cancellation rates at American, Delta, United and JetBlue.
Danielle Zanin vowed never to fly Southwest again after it took four days, several canceled flights, and sleeping in the airport for her, her husband, and their two young children to return to Illinois from Albuquerque, New Mexico. They stopped at airports in Denver and Phoenix, only reaching Chicago after leaving Southwest and paying $1,400 for four one-way tickets on American Airlines.
“I remember saying, ‘Oh my God, we’re getting on a plane!’ I was honestly shocked because I thought we were stuck in airports forever,” she said.
Zanin plans to ask Southwest for a portion of their original tickets plus the new ones on American, and additional expenses for rental cars, parking, an Uber ride, and food — about $2,000 total.
“I’m not very confident that they’ll do much of anything,” she said.