January 29, 2023

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Southwest canceled flights draw federal scrutiny

ATLANTA – Federal scrutiny is increasing. The CEO apologizes to customers.

As the collapse at Southwest Airlines, one of the worst industry observers have seen in decades, entered another day on Wednesday, angry customers were stuck, separated from their families and some still carrying Christmas gifts they had planned to deliver days earlier.

There was no relief early Wednesday: Southwest canceled more than 2,500 flights, or 62 percent of its flights planned for the day, According to FlightAwareFlight tracking service. The company said it could take days for the contract to be released and normal service to resume.

“I’m not mad at them,” said Tersa Isani Parham, as she stood in a zigzagging line at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s North Terminal Tuesday afternoon, hoping to find a Southwest employee willing to listen. “I am angry at the way they did it.”

Southwest’s operating configuration, which is different from most other major carriers, has come under intense scrutiny after a winter storm last week disrupted travel plans across the United States. Southwest was uniquely unable to get its planes back in the air after the storm, while thousands of customers were left stranded and struggling to rebook.

On Friday, about 1,300 Southwest flights — about 34 percent of its flights scheduled for that day — were cancelled. Other airlines in the United States also suffered Friday, with about 22.5 percent of all non-Southwest flights cancelled, according to FlightAware.

But as other airlines have restored their ability to operate — 13.3 percent of non-Southwest flights were canceled on Saturday, 9.7 percent on Sunday and 5.7 percent on Monday — problems have worsened at Southwest.

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Southwest Airlines canceled 39 percent of its flights on Saturday. The number increased 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, according to FlightAware.

Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, said in an interview with “NBC Nightly News” Tuesday that the situation was “unacceptable” that would warrant a closer look at Southwest’s scheduling system.

“We all understand that you can’t control the weather,” he said, adding that “this clearly crossed the line of limiting uncontrollable weather to something that is directly the responsibility of the airline.”

Senator Maria Cantwell, chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, said in a statement Tuesday that the committee will investigate the causes of the collapse, and that “the problems with Southwest Airlines over the past several days go beyond the weather.”

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

Southwest CEO, Bob JordanHe apologized to customers in a video Tuesday night, saying it could take days to solve the “giant puzzle” of hiring.

“Our plan for the next few days is to fly a reduced schedule and reposition our personnel and aircraft,” said Mr. Jordan. “We’re making progress, and we’re optimistic we’ll be back on track before next week.”

The problems stem from the carrier’s unique “point-to-point” model, in which planes tend to fly from destination to destination without returning to one or two major axes. Most airlines follow a “hub and spoke” model, with planes typically returning to a major airport after flying to other cities.

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

It leaves passengers like Mrs. Parham scrambling to make alternative plans, sometimes unable to do so.

Mrs. Parham planned to spend the days after Christmas at Disney World with her family – a birthday gift for one of her sons and his wife, and a Christmas gift for her grandson. She flew from Atlanta to Baltimore to meet up with her eldest son, who doesn’t like traveling alone, and then back to Atlanta before a Christmas trip to Tampa.

Her youngest son and his family arrived at Disney. Even her bags made it to Florida.

But her Sunday flight was cancelled, and she spent Christmas Day at the airport. After waiting until 4:30 the next morning, she said she was told she would be put on a 6am flight. That flight was overbooked, and Mrs. Parham became a standby passenger. The flight took off with her bags but without her. The next flight was delayed, then cancelled. Then another delay and another cancellation. And what about the trip after that? I canceled as well.

“I need my make-up,” said Mrs. Parham, laughing.

He was anxious to return home, as his twin brother was flying in from California to meet him in New York. Mr. Malloy arrived in Atlanta a week ago to visit a friend.

“Thinking this way must end is really exhausting,” he said.

This wasn’t Mr. Malloy’s first disappointing trip with Southwest, as he was among the thousands of passengers affected. Delays and cancellations in June 2021. At the time, he spent $98 on an Uber from a remote airport to get home to Queens and didn’t pick up his bags for three days. As an apology, the airline gave him an airline voucher, which he used on his flight to Atlanta.

“Redeeming the voucher probably wasn’t a good idea,” he said.

Tanya Cieshinsky wrote in Atlanta and Danielle Victor in London.