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Southwest’s Canceled Flights Draw Federal Scrutiny


ATLANTA — Federal scrutiny is growing. The chief executive is apologizing to customers.

And because the meltdown at Southwest Airlines, considered one of the worst that industry observers have seen in many years, entered one more day on Wednesday, irate customers remained stranded, separated from their families and a few still carrying Christmas gifts they planned to deliver days ago.

There was no relief early Wednesday: Southwest had canceled greater than 2,500 flights, or 62 percent of its planned flights for the day, in response to FlightAware, a flight-tracking service.

And the corporate has said it might be days until the knots are untangled and normal service resumes; greater than 2,300 flights on Thursday, or 58 percent of the airline’s scheduled total, had already been canceled by Wednesday morning.

“I’m not mad at them,” said Tearsa Aisani Parham, standing in a winding line at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s North Terminal on Tuesday afternoon, hoping to seek out a Southwest worker willing to listen. “I’m mad at the best way they did it.”

Southwest’s operational configuration, which differs from most other major carriers, has come under intense scrutiny after a winter storm last week disrupted travel plans across america. Southwest has been uniquely unable to get its planes back within the air after the storm, while hundreds of consumers have been left stranded and struggling to rebook.

On Friday, around 1,300 Southwest flights — about 34 percent of its scheduled flights that day — were canceled. Other airlines in america also struggled on Friday, with about 22.5 percent of all non-Southwest flights canceled, in response to FlightAware.

But as other airlines regained their footing — 13.3 percent of non-Southwest flights were canceled on Saturday, 9.7 percent on Sunday and 5.7 percent on Monday — the issues worsened at Southwest.

Southwest canceled 39 percent of its flights on Saturday. The number grew to 46 percent on Sunday, 74 percent on Monday and 64 percent on Tuesday.

In total, nearly 11,000 Southwest flights have been canceled since Thursday, in response to FlightAware.

Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, said in an interview on “NBC Nightly News” on Tuesday that it was “an unacceptable situation” that will demand a better have a look at Southwest’s scheduling system.

“All of us understand you could’t control the weather,” he said, adding that “this has clearly crossed the road from what’s an uncontrollable weather situation to something that’s the airline’s direct responsibility.”

Senator Maria Cantwell, chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, said in an announcement on Tuesday that the committee can be investigating the causes of the meltdown, and that “the issues at Southwest Airlines during the last several days transcend weather.”

“Many airlines fail to adequately communicate with consumers during flight cancellations,” she said. “Consumers deserve strong protections, including an updated consumer refund rule.”

Southwest’s chief executive, Bob Jordan, apologized to customers in a video on Tuesday night, saying that the “giant puzzle” of staffing could take days to resolve.

“Our plan for the subsequent 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 on target before next week.”

The problems stem from the carrier’s unique “point to point” model, during which planes are inclined to fly from destination to destination without returning to at least one or two most important hubs. Most airlines follow a “hub and spoke” model, during which planes typically return to a hub airport after flying out to other cities.

When bad weather hits, hub-and-spoke airlines can shut down specific routes and have plans in place to restart operations when the skies clear. But bad weather can scramble multiple flights and routes in a point-to-point model, leaving Southwest staff out of position to resume normal operations.

It leaves passengers like Ms. Parham scrambling to make alternate plans, and sometimes unable to achieve this.

Ms. Parham planned to spend the times after Christmas at Disney World along with her family — a birthday gift to considered one of her sons and his wife, and a Christmas gift to her grandson. She flew from Atlanta to Baltimore to satisfy up along with her eldest son, who doesn’t wish to fly alone, then returned to Atlanta upfront of a Christmas Day flight to Tampa.

Her younger son and his family made it to Disney. Even her bags made it to Florida.

But her Sunday flight was canceled, and she or he spent Christmas Day on the airport. After waiting until 4:30 a.m. the subsequent day, she said she was told she’d be placed on a 6 a.m. flight. That flight was overbooked, and Ms. Parham became a standby passenger. The flight took off along with her bags, but without her. The following flight was delayed, then canceled. Then one other delay, and one other cancellation. And the flight after that? Canceled as well.

“I would like my makeup,” Ms. Parham said with amusing.

Waiting in line on the Atlanta airport on Tuesday, Anthony Malloy, 63, of Queens, N.Y., said that he wouldn’t give you the option to get on a flight before Friday. He said he had no alternative but to come back to the airport after his Tuesday flight home was canceled, because the Southwest customer support line was disconnected and changes were unavailable online.

He was desperate to return home, as his twin brother was flying from California to satisfy him in Latest York. Mr. Malloy arrived in Atlanta per week ago to go to a friend.

“To think that is the best way it has to finish is basically debilitating,” he said.

It was not Mr. Malloy’s first disappointing trip with Southwest, as he was amongst hundreds of passengers affected by delays and cancellations in June 2021. On the time, 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 for his trip to Atlanta.

“Redeeming the voucher won’t have been such a great idea,” he said.

Tanya Sichynsky reported from Atlanta, and Daniel Victor from London.

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