After a winter storm pummeled many parts of the country, most airlines quickly bounced back from delays and cancellations. But not Southwest Airlines, which days later continues to be struggling from what executives and analysts describe as its biggest operational meltdown in its five-decade history.
The bad weather, coming a number of days before Christmas, hit the airline harder than the remaining of the industry due to inadequate computer systems that made it hard for the airline to get crews to waiting planes and put passengers on alternative flights, and a flight model that allowed problems at one airport to cascade to others.
“That is the worst round of cancellations for any single airline I can recall in a profession of greater than 20 years as an industry analyst,” Henry Harteveldt, who covers airlines for Atmosphere Research Group, said.
Hundreds of travelers were stranded at airports, and lots of said Southwest had done little or nothing to get them to their destinations. Southwest canceled greater than 2,900 flights on Monday; scrapped about 2,500 every day for the following two days, greater than 60 percent of its schedule; and said it could take days to completely restore normal operations.
Fabian Maldonado, a construction manager from Los Angeles who described himself as a loyal Southwest customer, said he and his two sons flew from Burbank, Calif., to Sacramento on a Southwest flight on Monday, planning to fly from there to Spokane, Wash. However the Spokane flight was canceled, and Southwest didn’t notify him, he said.
“This is actually kind of creating me rethink them,” Mr. Maldonado said. “The client service isn’t there; it’s falling apart.”
In a video statement on Tuesday night, Southwest’s chief executive, Bob Jordan, apologized to customers. He said the airline had been unable to get flight crews to where they needed to be, compounding the consequences of the bad weather, and that the “giant puzzle” could take days to unravel.
“Our plan for the following few days is to fly a reduced schedule and reposition our people and planes,” Mr. Jordan said. “We’re making headway, and we’re optimistic to be back heading in the right direction before next week.”
The Department of Transportation said in a press release on Monday that it will look into the issues at Southwest, adding that it was concerned by the airline’s “unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays” and reports of poor customer support. On Tuesday, President Biden reposted that statement on Twitter and urged customers to ascertain to see in the event that they were eligible for compensation.
All airlines have been under fire from lawmakers and regulators for delays and cancellations since demand for travel recovered from the pandemic in 2021. Most of the industry’s problems will be traced to staffing shortages that were caused partly by early retirements and buyouts that the industry offered staff after ticket sales collapsed in 2020.
Lyn Montgomery, the president of Transport Employees Union Local 556, which represents Southwest Airlines flight attendants, said she had spoken Tuesday with Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, to debate the breakdown at Southwest. She said that Southwest’s technology was a serious explanation for the meltdown and that her union had long pressed the corporate’s leaders to enhance it.
“We’re going to be sure that we keep Southwest Airlines executives accountable for what’s happening in order that the airline that we helped make successful goes to be reliable and stable once more,” Ms. Montgomery said in an interview.
Mr. Buttigieg said in a press release Tuesday that he had also spoken to Southwest’s chief executive, Mr. Jordan.
In an interview on Tuesday with NBC Nightly News, Mr. Buttigieg said, “Where most airlines saw their performance start to enhance, Southwest has actually moved in the opposite direction,” adding, “It’s an unacceptable situation.”
Southwest was the primary large airline to point out a profit because the pandemic began to recede. And in some ways, it emerged as a giant winner as people began flying and taking vacations again.
But analysts say problems were lurking in Southwest’s operations — problems that appear to have tripped the corporate up when bad weather arrived at the tip of last week.
The storm, aviation experts said, had a disproportionate impact on Southwest because the corporate configures its network in a different way from the way in which the country’s three other large airlines — American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines — arrange theirs.
Most carriers operate on a “hub and spoke” basis, with planes returning to a hub airport after flying out to other cities — United has hubs, for instance, on the airports serving Newark, Houston and Denver. While Southwest does have a big presence at certain airports, it uses a “point to point” approach through which planes are inclined to fly from destination to destination without returning to at least one or two most important hubs.
Hub-and-spoke airlines can shut down specific routes when bad weather hits, and with good planning, the businesses can have crews and planes in place to restart operations when conditions improve. But Southwest can’t do this as easily without disrupting multiple flights and routes, Mr. Harteveldt said.
David Vernon, an airline analyst at Bernstein Research, said that Southwest’s approach allows the corporate to make greater use of its planes during normal times, but that when things go flawed, problems can spread quickly.
After all, hub-and-spoke airlines can and have suffered big problems, particularly when bad weather or other issues cripple operations at a number of major hub airports.
Southwest, which has long prided itself on having good relations with its employees, has also recently struggled with staffing shortages that most definitely have heightened tensions between management and staff, said Robert W. Mann Jr., a former airline executive who now runs the consulting firm R.W. Mann & Company.
“Southwest clearly took the worst of this,” Mr. Mann said. “I’ve got to think it was cultural greater than anything.”
The turmoil is a test for Mr. Jordan, a longtime Southwest official who took over a chief executive in February. The corporate’s stock price closed down about 6 percent on Tuesday.
Union leaders said a most important explanation for Southwest’s problems was inadequate computer systems that they said had did not efficiently match crews with flights when cancellations began to build up. “They’d committed to us that they’ve hung out and money on the infrastructure, nevertheless it has not been enough,” said Ms. Montgomery, the union leader. “The home of cards has fallen.”
Analysts also said Southwest had been slow to introduce recent systems that might help it run its business. “Southwest has never viewed technology as a strategic priority,” Mr. Harteveldt said.
Those and other failures are expected to attract the scrutiny of officials in Washington, where lawmakers like Senator Maria Cantwell, who leads the Commerce Committee, called on Tuesday for stronger protections for travelers, including federal rules that require airlines to issue refunds for delayed or canceled flights.
Making matters worse for patrons: Southwest has a policy of not exchanging tickets with other airlines, so the corporate couldn’t rebook passengers on other flights, Mr. Harteveldt said. The debacle could force the airline to “buy back” frustrated customers with deeper discounts or conduct more promotions, he said.
No single region or airport bore the brunt of the cancellations, though airports with a big Southwest presence were hit the toughest. Those airports included Denver International, Chicago Midway, Harry Reid International in Las Vegas and Sacramento International.
It has been nearly every week for the reason that winter storm began wreaking havoc for thousands and thousands of travelers. The variety of canceled flights began to rise Thursday, when airlines called off greater than 2,600 of them. The following day, nearly 6,000, or a few quarter of all U.S. flights, were canceled across the country. On Saturday, Christmas Eve, nearly 3,500 flights were canceled, and barely fewer, about 3,200, were cut from the schedules on Christmas Day.
Reporting was contributed by Derrick Bryson Taylor, Daniel Victor, Shawn Hubler, Mark Walker and Steve Lohr.