The winter storm that disrupted travel plans over the weekend and created an epic pile-on of flight cancellations for Southwest Airlines left the carrier’s passengers “beyond frustrated,” as one put it to CBS DFW. Thousands of families were stranded, with some waiting days to board planes.
Southwest customers at Dallas Love Field expressed disappointment, frustration and anger Monday after facing multiple flight delays and cancellations since before Christmas.
Talia Jones, a Southwest Air customer, told CBS DFW she was “beyond frustrated and hurt because I can’t see my dad. So yeah, it’s very disappointing.”
As of 5 a.m. ET Tuesday, Southwest was responsible for an overwhelming majority of U.S. cancellations for the new day, according to flight tracking website FlightAware.com: 2,495 out of 2,809 for all carriers.
Two-thirds of Southwest’s flights had been canceled as of Monday afternoon, according to FlightAware.
On Monday afternoon, the board at Dallas Love Field, showed every single arrival had been canceled, according to reporter Kelly Laco.
At Chicago’s Midway International Airport – where Southwest is the main carrier – the wait times were high, and patience was running low Monday night, CBS Chicago said.
The situation was described by one traveler as nothing short of a mess. In addition to long lines taking up space, hundreds and hundreds of bags were waiting to be claimed as the cancellations and delays kept piling up.
“It’s been hell,” said Denzil Smothers, whose flight was canceled.
The federal Department of Transportation on Monday said it would investigate the meltdown, saying it was “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.”
“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,” the department said in a statement.
Traveler Michael Bauzon and his family planned on flying out of Orlando International Airport on Friday to return home to Indianapolis in time for Christmas on Sunday. Instead, the four spent the holidays in a hotel after their flight was canceled, Bauzon told CBS affiliate WKMG, and were back at the airport on Monday — where they continued to wait.
“This morning we got here at 4:30 for a 7:05 flight, we looked it up, and oh it had just been canceled,” he said, gesturing to a line snaking in front of the Southwest service counter. “It’s a four- to five-hour line … before they can get us on a flight — if they can get us on a flight,” he said.
Widespread storm, outdated tech
In a statement Monday that opened with “heartfelt apologies,” Southwest said that its geography made it “uniquely” vulnerable to the storm, with half of the airports in which it flies affected by winter weather.
“We were fully staffed and prepared for the approaching holiday weekend when the severe weather swept across the continent, where Southwest is the largest carrier in 23 of the top 25 travel markets in the U.S. This forced daily changes to our flight schedule at a volume and magnitude that still has the tools our teams use to recover the airline operating at capacity,” the statement said.
“We anticipate additional changes with an already reduced level of flights as we approach the coming New Year holiday travel period,” it noted.
The company also blames a lack of technology. “Part of what we’re suffering is a lack of tools. We’ve talked an awful lot about modernizing the operation, and the need to do that,” CEO Bob Jordan said in an internal message on Sunday that was reported by several media outlets and the flight attendants’ union.
Jammed phone lines, systems
Southwest directed customers away from jammed phone lines, noting that it was experiencing “system issues” amid elevated demand.
Spokesperson Chris Perry said the airline’s online booking and check-in systems are still operating, but were also jammed because of “abnormally high” volumes of traffic on their site. “We are re-accommodating as many Customers as possible based on available space,” he told CBS News.
As Southwest blamed technological issues, the flight attendants’ union, Transit Workers Union 556, accused the airline of contributing to the problem by underinvesting in technology for years.
“The lack of technology has left the airline relying on manual solutions and personal phone calls, leaving flight attendants on hold with Southwest Airlines for up to 17 hours at a time simply to be released to go home after their trip, or while attempting to secure a hotel room or know where their next trip will be,” the union said in a statement. “While reroutes and rescheduling are understood to be a part of the job in the airline industry, the massive scale of the failure over the past few days points to a shirking of responsibility over many years for investing in and implementing technology that could help solve for many of the issues that plague flight attendants and passengers alike.”
The union and airline have been in contract negotiations for four years.
— With reporting by Zel Elvi, Kathryn Krupnik, Kris Van Cleave and Brian Dakss.