Why Did Southwest Airlines Cancel So Many Flights? Here's What the Airline Said

The airline reported a "disproportionate" amount of cancellations compared to other major carriers as the post-holiday travel rush began

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Travelers dealt with widespread difficulties in the lead-up to the Christmas holiday weekend as a winter storm pummeled the U.S., but even as some of the effects of the storm lingered, much of the travel disruptions were expected to be cleared by this week -- except for those who flew on Southwest Airlines.

The airline reported a "disproportionate" amount of cancellations compared to other major carriers as the post-holiday travel rush began.

It canceled more than 70% of its flights Monday, more than 60% on Tuesday, and warned that it would operate just over a third of its usual schedule in the days ahead to allow crews to get back to where they needed to be.

American, United, Delta and JetBlue, suffered cancellation rates of between none and 2% by Tuesday.

In fact, of the 2,890 flight cancellations in the U.S. early Tuesday, 2,522 were called off by Southwest.

At Chicago's Midway Airport, hundreds of Southwest passengers were left stranded for hours, luggage began piling up and delays turned from hours to days. Similar scenes were reported at airports across the U.S.

“We had a tough day today. In all likelihood we’ll have another tough day tomorrow as we work our way out of this,” Southwest CEO Bob Jordan told The Wall Street Journal in an interview Monday evening. “This is the largest scale event that I’ve ever seen.”

The disparity has triggered a closer look at Southwest operations by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which called the rate of cancellations “unacceptable," and sought to ensure that the carrier was sticking by its obligations to stranded customers.

So how did this happen?

In a statement to NBC Chicago Monday, a spokesperson for the airline said the disruptions were largely due to "Winter Storm Elliott's lingering effects," though they noted a "scheduling issue" also played a role.

"We are not having staffing issues, but we had experienced problems connecting flight crews to their scheduled aircraft. It is a scheduling issue, not a staffing issue," the spokesperson said.

Shortly after that statement to NBC 5, the airline issued a public apology, saying it recognized it had fallen short.

"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."

Despite questions surrounding staffing, a spokesperson also told NBC Chicago Tuesday there was "no nationwide walkout or any type of walkout of employees in any capacity," calling such reports "completely unfounded."

"The totality of our operation has been affected over the past few days and will continue to be for a few days to come," Southwest spokesperson Chris Perry said.

What's next?

For those holding out hope, it doesn't appear like things will be getting better soon.

Southwest said it anticipates "additional changes with an already reduced level of flights as we approach the coming New Year holiday travel period."

"As we continue the work to recover our operation, we have made the decision to continue operating a reduced schedule by flying roughly one third of our schedule for the next several days," the statement read.

It goes on to say that they are "working to reach customers whose travel plans will change."

"On the other side of this, we’ll work to make things right for those we’ve let down, including our Employees," the statement concludes. "We recognize falling short and sincerely apologize."

According to Southwest Airlines' website, "Customers holding any Southwest reservation from Sunday, December 25 through Monday, January 2, may rebook in the original class of service or travel standby (within 14 days of their original date of travel between the original city-pairs and in accordance with our accommodation procedures) without paying any additional charge."

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