The US Department of Transportation will examine thousands of flight cancellations by Southwest Airlines over the holiday weekend, a massive disruption which left thousands of holiday travelers grounded.
In a tweet on Tuesday, Joe Biden said: “Thousands of flights nationwide have been canceled around the holidays. Our administration is working to ensure airlines are held accountable.”
Biden directed affected travelers to a transportation department website which outlines airlines’ obligations to consumers.
While most major US carriers were hit by cancellations caused by a major winter storm, Southwest was particularly hard hit.
Between Thursday and Monday, the Dallas-based airline canceled about 8,000 flights, according to the website FlightAware. Even after the storm passed in most of the US, disruptions appeared to briefly intensify. The airline cancelled more than 70% of flights on Monday and more than 60% on Tuesday, and warned that just over a third of its schedule would run in the coming days.
The Department of Transportation said that the rate of cancellations was “disproportionate and unacceptable”. Other carriers, including American, United, Delta and JetBlue, reported cancellation rates between zero and 2% on Tuesday, after recording 20% of flights scrubbed over the weekend.
Unlike other airlines that operate directly to and from hub airports, Southwest tends to operate a point-to-point service, meaning that when one flight is disrupted, there may not be spare aircraft and crews to pick up the route, leading to disruptions through the scheduling chain.
“We have crews stuck and scheduling doesn’t know where they are,” Casey Murray, head of the union that represents Southwest’s pilots, told the Wall Street Journal on Sunday.
Analysts warned that Southwest could lose 3% to 5% from its quarterly earnings. But the cost to its reputation could be worse. The airline has been hit disproportionally hard during previous extreme weather events. Shares were down more than 5% on Monday.
In an interview with the Journal on Monday, the Southwest chief executive, Bob Jordan, called the storm “the largest-scale event that I’ve ever seen”.
The carrier, which serves Buffalo, New York, the region worst-hit by the storm, apologized, saying “continuing challenges are impacting our customers and employees in a significant way that is unacceptable”.
Jordan said part of the problem could be traced to outdated scheduling software that is in the process of being updated.
“Part of what we’re suffering is a lack of tools,” he said.
Like many airlines, Southwest had dismissed staff during the Covid pandemic, only to find itself scrambling to rehire when strong demand returned. At the same time, it expanded its service to 18 new cities.
Southwest said it would take steps to cover reasonable travel costs including hotels, rental cars and tickets on other airlines. Ryan Green, the chief commercial officer, said customers whose flights were canceled as the airline recovered would be entitled to refunds.
Teresa Murray of the PIRG consumer watchdog network said that while Christmas weekend travel was likely to be disrupted by the winter storm, new consumer protections are needed.
“Unreliable airline travel has been an ongoing nightmare for more than two and a half years”, Murray said. “While the awful weather isn’t anyone’s fault, the way travelers were treated and accommodated – or not – sits squarely on the shoulders of most of the airlines.”