Southwest flight cancellations draw criticism, scrutiny from Biden administration

Southwest flight cancellations draw criticism, scrutiny from Biden administration

Southwest Airlines canceled more than 70% of its flights on Monday, and warned mass disruptions will continue this week, drawing concern from the U.S. Department of Transportation, as other airlines recovered from severe winter weather.

As of Monday night Southwest had already scrubbed 60% of its flights for the next day.

Southwest said it would operate just one-third of its schedule “for the next several days,” in an effort to recover its operation, the airline said Monday.

Airlines have canceled more than 17,000 U.S. flights since Wednesday, according to FlightAware, as storms brought snow, ice, high winds and bitter cold around the country, derailing air travel from coast to coast. Those conditions slowed down crews as they faced severe conditions at airports.

Southwest said Monday it expected “additional changes with an already reduced level of flights as we approach the coming New Year holiday travel period.”

Carriers are likely to detail the costs of the disruptions when they report results next month, if not earlier. Southwest Airlines had outsize struggles. Executives pointed to unexpected fog in San Diego, staffing shortages at its fuel vendor in Denver and internal technology, among the additional challenges.

Southwest’s problems also drew criticism and scrutiny from the Biden administration.

“USDOT is concerned by Southwest Airlines’ disproportionate and unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays as well as the failure to properly support customers experiencing a cancellation or delay,” the Department of Transportation said late Monday. “As more information becomes available the Department will closely examine whether cancellations were controllable and whether Southwest is complying with its customer service plan as well as all other pertinent DOT rules.”

Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, United Airlines, JetBlue Airways and Alaska Airlines were among the carriers affected by the weather. But other airlines had a percentage of cancellations on Monday.

Southwest’s problems continued on Monday while other carriers stabilized. The carrier had canceled more than 2,800 flights, 70% of its schedule, and 670 others were delayed. In comparison, Delta had canceled 9% of its mainline flights on Monday, United 5% and American less than 1% with 12 flights scrubbed.

More than 3,200 U.S. flights were canceled on Monday, and close to 5,000 were delayed. Southwest had been canceling many flights proactively in an effort to stabilize its operation, COO Andrew Watterson told staff.

From Wednesday through Sunday, nearly one-third of Southwest’s flights were canceled, and two-thirds were delayed, according to FlightAware data.

The airline apologized to employees for the chaos, which left many struggling to get a hold of crew scheduling services, making it harder to get reassignments or make other changes, or get hotel rooms.

Southwest also offered flight attendants working over the holiday extra pay.

Southwest CEO Bob Jordan said in a staff message it could take a few more days to fix the airline’s operation.

“Part of what we’re suffering is a lack of tools,” Jordan said in a message to staff on Sunday. “We’ve talked an awful lot about modernizing the operation, and the need to do that. And Crew Scheduling is one of the places that we need to invest in. We need to be able to produce solutions faster.”

Some pilots and flight attendants were forced to sleep at airports because they were unable to find hotel rooms, their unions said.

Crews complained about being stranded and having to wait on hold with scheduling services. “Our customers struggled with it just as our thousands of flight attendants did. These are issues that you can’t solve with holiday pay; this is time and quality of life that we will never get back,” Lyn Montgomery, president of the Transport Workers Union of America Local 556, said in a statement.

Both the pilots and flight attendant unions are in contract talks with the company.

Airlines often cancel flights proactively during bad weather to avoid having planes, crews and customers out of place, problems that can make recovery from a storm more difficult.

Carriers also planned smaller schedules for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day compared with the days leading up to the holidays, making it harder for them to rebook travelers on other flights, and bookings had spiked. An American Airlines spokeswoman said the “vast majority of our customers affected by cancellations were able to be reaccommodated.”

Delta is “seeing steady recovery in our operations, and expect the improvements to continue over the next several hours,” a spokesman said Monday.

Extreme cold and high winds slowed ground operations at dozens of airports. More than half of U.S.-based airlines’ flights arrived late from Thursday through Saturday, with delays averaging 81 minutes, according to FlightAware.

“Temperatures have fallen so low that our equipment and infrastructure have been impacted, from frozen lav systems and fuel hoses to broken tow bars,” said a United Airlines message to pilots on Saturday. “Pilots have encountered frozen locks when trying to re-enter the jet bridge after conducting walk arounds.”

The FAA said it had to evacuate its tower at United hub Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey because of a leak on Saturday.

JetBlue, meantime, offered flight attendants triple pay to pick up trips on Christmas Eve due to staffing shortages.