Southwest Airlines scrubbed thousands of flights again Tuesday in the aftermath of the massive winter storm that wrecked Christmas travel plans across the U.S., and the federal government said it would investigate why the company lagged so far behind other carriers.
A day after most U.S. airlines had recovered from the storm, Southwest called off about 2,600 more flights on the East Coast by midafternoon. Those flights accounted for more than 80 percent of the 3,000 trips that got canceled nationwide Tuesday, according to tracking service FlightAware.
And the chaos seemed certain to continue. The airline also scrubbed 2,500 flights for Wednesday and nearly 1,200 for Thursday as it tried to restore order to its mangled schedule.
At airports with major Southwest operations, customers stood in long lines hoping to find a seat on another flight. Some tried to rent cars to get to their destinations sooner. Others found spots to sleep on the floor. Luggage piled up in huge heaps.
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The travel mayhem caught the attention of the United States’ Department of Transportation, which called the rate of canceled flights “disproportionate and unacceptable.”
“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,” a spokesperson said. “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.”
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The Dallas-based airline had little new to say about its woes. The company did not offer any updates on Tuesday morning, and information on the cancellations was last updated on the company’s website Monday.
The problems began over the weekend and snowballed Monday, when Southwest called off more than 70% of its flights.
The size and severity of the storm created havoc for many airlines, although the largest number of canceled flights Tuesday were at airports where Southwest is a major carrier, including Denver, Chicago Midway, Las Vegas, Baltimore and Dallas.
Spirit Airlines and Alaska Airlines both canceled about 10% of their flights, with much smaller cancellation percentages at American, Delta, United and JetBlue.
In upstate New York, Buffalo Niagara International Airport — close to the epicenter of the storm — remained closed Tuesday.
Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said the airline failed to fix problems that caused a similar meltdown in October 2021.
“There is a lot of frustration because this is so preventable,” Murray said. “The airline cannot connect crews to airplanes. The airline didn't even know where pilots were at."
Hundreds of passengers at Chicago airports say they only learned about their flight cancellations after already arriving for their flights, including a family of more than 20 that was supposed to be in Miami on Monday night, with a non-refundable cruise set for Tuesday.
“We spent three hours waiting,” Natalie Flowers said. “We were not told before that our flight was canceled. We got no notification whatsoever.”
The family was left looking not only for any possible flight to Florida, but were also faced with the shorter-term problem of how to cope with the issues, saying they stood in line for hours to no avail.
“I was at the gate, checked my luggage and everything. It said my flight was delayed twice, then it was canceled,” April Holmes said.
Rebeka Budde, who was flying to Las Vegas, had similar issues.
“When we got to check-in, they said ‘yep, your flight is canceled,’” she Budde said. “ Here we are five hours later, and we’re still not at the front of the line.”
Budde says that her sister ran out of days off on our trip, and was told by her boss that her job was at risk if she didn’t make it back in time.
“My sister will probably lose her job because she ran out of days off. They told her to be back Tuesday, or no job,” she said.
Wendy Dimitri is also traveling and said that she didn’t get any notifications about her flights.
“We didn’t get a notification, no text message, nothing,” she said. “We came up from northwest Indiana to catch our flight. My husband went to the Loop to get a car, and he’s coming back to get us so we can drive to Charlotte.”
A Wisconsin-based basketball team was supposed to fly to Orlando for a tournament that begins on Tuesday, but their flight was canceled. After several hours and some good fortune, they managed to get a bus chartered to drive them there.
“We got here at about 7:30 a.m., everything was great until they changed gates on us,” coach Steve Collins said. “Then five minutes later they canceled the flight and rebooked us on Jan. 4.”
Collins and other passengers expressed their support for airline employees, who are being deluged with requests and demands as travelers go through horrendous experiences.
“They’re dealing with upset people, and it’s a really hard job,” Collins said.
“It is a scheduling issue, not a staffing issue,” a spokesperson told NBC 5.
Shortly after those statements, the airline issued a public apology on Monday.
"Our heartfelt apologies for this are just beginning," the airline said in a release. "We’re working with safety at the forefront to urgently address wide-scale disruption by rebalancing the airline and repositioning crews and our fleet ultimately to best serve all who plan to travel with us. 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.