Feds investigating ‘unacceptable’ Southwest flight cancellations

With thousands of flights canceled across the country and more travel woes expected throughout the week as customers were left stranded, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) has one airline in its sights for an “unacceptable” response to the extreme weather.

Travelers heading home or looking to get away over Christmas were met with delays and cancelations impacting the vast majority of flights for some airlines. While some dealt with the weather disruptions in stride and were adjusting to meet the demands of customers, Southwest Airlines – which continued to cancel nearly three-quarters of all flights Monday – announced many passengers would remain unaccommodated for days to come with more cancelations expected.

According to the flight tracking website FlightAware, on the day after Christmas Southwest had canceled 2,886 flights amounting to 70 percent of its schedule. In response to these and other service issues, the federal government has interceded and announced late Monday, “USDOT is concerned by Southwest’s unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays & reports of lack of prompt customer service. The Department will examine whether cancellations were controllable and if Southwest is complying with its customer service plan.”

Though Southwest wasn’t alone in having to cancel and delay flights due to winter weather, the airline’s outages far exceeded its competitors at locations nationwide. According to Fox 11, of over 160 flights canceled and 340 delayed at Los Angeles International Airport, 106 and 30 respectively were Southwest flights. Passengers were given the option to get a refund or rebook their flight, but the earliest available flight for those traveling to Seattle, New York and San Francisco wasn’t until December 31.

Similar woes were faced by those departing Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport when they were told via the public address system that over 90 percent of flights had been canceled and they should leave the airport as the earliest they could be rebooked was four days out.

More than half of Southwest flights at Chicago’s Midway International Airport were canceled Monday with 60 percent reportedly canceled for Tuesday as well.

In a statement issued by the airline, Southwest attempted to explain, “With consecutive days of extreme weather across our network behind us, continuing challenges are impacting our Customers and Employees in a significant way that is unacceptable.”

“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.,” the statement added. “These operational conditions forced daily changes to our flight schedule at a volume and magnitude that still has the tools our teams used to recover the airline operating at capacity.”

Evidently, the plan moving forward for Southwest required operating only one-third of the scheduled flights for the remainder of the week in order to get crews in necessary locations and on a rotation needed to fulfill the overwhelming backlog. As Southwest CEO Bob Jordan put it while speaking with the Wall Street Journal, “We had a tough day today. In all likelihood we’ll have another tough day tomorrow as we work our way out of this.”

“This is the largest scale event that I’ve ever seen,” Jordan said.

However, the modified schedule was not the only adjustment that Southwest made in response as a “State of Operational Emergency” had reportedly been declared at Denver International Airport, enforcing strict attendance requirements and mandatory overtime with noncompliance resulting in termination. The following day, a flight to Denver from Tampa Bay was sent back to Florida because there were no employees available for it to properly land.

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Kevin Haggerty

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