Southwest and other airlines cancel thousands of flights in the US

After a winter storm hit many parts of the country, most airlines quickly recovered from the delays and cancellations. But not Southwest Airlines, which days later is still struggling with what executives and analysts describe as its biggest operational crisis in its five-decade history.

The bad weather, which came days before Christmas, hit the airline harder than the rest of the industry because of inadequate computer systems that made it difficult for the airline to get crews to wait for planes and seat passengers on alternate flights, and a flight model. … which allowed one airport’s problems to spread to others.

“This is the worst round of cancellations for any airline that I can remember in a 20-plus-year career as an industry analyst,” said Henry Harteveldt, who covers airlines for Atmosphere Research Group.

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

Fabian Maldonado, a Los Angeles construction manager who described himself as a loyal Southwest customer, said he and his two sons flew from Burbank, Calif., to Sacramento on Monday on a flight from Southwest, planning to fly from there to Spokane, Wash. But the Spokane flight was canceled and Southwest didn’t notify him, he said.

“This is really making me rethink them,” said Mr. Maldonado said. “The customer service is not there; it’s sinking.”

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

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

The Department of Transport he said in a statement on Monday that he would look into the problems at Southwest, adding that he was concerned about the airline’s “unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays” and reports of poor customer service. On Tuesday, President Biden It reposted that statement on Twitter and urged customers to check if they were eligible for compensation.

All airlines have come under fire from lawmakers and regulators for delays and cancellations since travel demand recovered from the pandemic in 2021. Many of the industry’s problems can be attributed to staff shortages that it was caused in part by early retirement and buyouts that the industry offered. . workers after ticket sales collapsed in 2020.

Lyn Montgomery, president of Transport Workers Union Local 556, which represents Southwest Airlines flight attendants, said she had spoken with Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, on Tuesday to discuss the outage at Southwest. He said Southwest’s technology was a major cause of the crisis and that his union had long pressed the company’s leaders to improve it.

“We will make sure that the executives at Southwest Airlines are held accountable for what is happening so that the airline that we have helped to succeed becomes reliable and stable again.” Montgomery said in an interview.

Mr. Buttigieg said in a statement Tuesday that he had also spoken with Southwest CEO Mr. Jordan.

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

Southwest was the first major airline to show profits as the pandemic began to recede. And somehow, it emerged as a big winner as people started flying and taking vacations again.

But analysts say there were problems at Southwest’s operations, problems that appear to have caught the company off guard when the bad weather hit late last week.

According to aviation experts, the storm had a disproportionate impact on Southwest because the company configures its network differently from the way the country’s other three major airlines – American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines – they set up their

Most airlines operate on a “hub and spoke” basis, with aircraft returning to a central airport after flying to other cities; United has hubs, for example, at airports serving Newark, Houston and Denver. Although Southwest has a large presence at certain airports, it uses a “point-to-point” approach in which planes typically fly from destination to destination without returning to one or two major hubs.

Hub and radio airlines can close specific routes when bad weather hits, and with good planning, airlines can have crews and planes ready to restart operations when conditions improve. But Southwest can’t do that easily without disrupting several flights and routes, Mr. Harteveldt said.

David Vernon, an airline analyst at Bernstein Research, said Southwest’s approach allows the company to make greater use of its planes in normal times, but when things go wrong, problems can spread quickly.

Of course, hub-and-spoke airlines can and have experienced major problems, especially when bad weather or other problems cripple operations at one or more major airports.

Southwest, which has long prided itself on good employee relations, has also recently struggled with staffing shortages that have likely increased tensions between management and workers, said Robert W. Mann Jr., a former airline executive who now runs the consultancy. firm RW Mann & Company.

“The Southwest clearly took the brunt of it,” said Mr. Mann said. “I have to think it was more cultural than anything else.”

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

Union leaders said a major cause of Southwest’s problems was inadequate computer systems that they said failed to efficiently match crews to flights when cancellations began to pile up. . “They had promised us that they have spent time and money on the infrastructure, but it hasn’t been enough,” said Ms. Montgomery, the union leader. “The house of cards has fallen.”

Analysts also said Southwest had been slow to introduce new systems to help it run its business. Southwest has never seen technology as a strategic priority.,” Mr. Harteveldt said.

Those and other failures are expected to draw scrutiny from officials in Washington, where lawmakers such as Sen. Maria Cantwell, who heads the Commerce Committee, on Tuesday called for stronger protections for travelers, including federal rules that require airlines to issue refunds for delays or cancellations. .Do you want.

To make matters worse for customers: Southwest has a policy of not exchanging tickets with other airlines, so the company would not be able to 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 region or airport bore the brunt of the cancellations, although airports with a heavy presence in the Southwest were the 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 wreaking havoc on millions of travelers. The number of canceled flights began to rise on Thursday, when airlines canceled more than 2,600 of them. The next day, nearly 6,000, or about a quarter of all US flights, were canceled across the country. On Saturday, Christmas Eve, nearly 3,500 flights were canceled and slightly fewer, around 3,200, were cut from Christmas Day schedules.

The report was contributed by Derrick Bryson Taylor, Daniel Victor, Shawn Hubler, Mark Walker i Steve Lohr.

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