The carrier’s disruptions attracted scrutiny from the Transportation Department, which said it was looking into Southwest’s handling of cancellations. The chaos upended holiday travel plans for tens of thousands of air travelers at a time when industry executives and analysts expressed optimism over their ability to handle an onslaught of holiday passengers.
While all carriers have reported some delays and cancellations in recent days, Southwest’s inability to get travelers to their destinations continued to stand out at airports across the country.
The Department of Transportation said it will examine Southwest’s mass cancellations, which stranded passengers days after a winter storm gripped much of the country. The agency will look into “whether cancellations were controllable,” it said in a tweet Monday night.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said early Tuesday in a tweet that he is monitoring the situation.
“I’m tracking closely & will have more to say about this tomorrow,” Buttigieg tweeted just after midnight.
More than 5,500 domestic flights were canceled Monday, while more than 17,300 flights were delayed — disproportionately among those belonging to Southwest.
The air carrier apologized for the disruptions, calling them “unacceptable.” The airline said it would continue to operate at a significantly reduced schedule, flying about one-third of its normal schedule for “several days.”
The storm hit Southwest hard in Denver and Chicago, where it has large operations, according to company spokesman Chris Perry. The airline doesn’t have a central hub like many other companies, and is instead spread out across much of the country.
Southwest’s tools to match flight crews with planes were also “struggling,” adding to the disruptions, Perry said, denying that understaffing issues played a part in the upheaval.
Yata Watts, 50, a tax preparer and real estate agent who lives near Houston, was leaving about 3:30 a.m. Friday to catch an early-morning flight to Fort Lauderdale with her three children when she got a notification they were rebooked on a 3:45 p.m. departure. That flight also was canceled.
With their Royal Caribbean cruise set to sail at 4 p.m. that day, the timing wouldn’t work. She scrambled and found a United flight for the family, shelling out another $1,000 for tickets. They made it onto the cruise and planned to head home Tuesday, but Monday night she was notified that her flight home – with a connection in New Orleans – was also canceled.
“They’re not giving any options to rebook at all,” she said. She had to pay another $1,000 to fly United back home, on Thursday. She and her children, ages 11, 13 and 17, are passing time in a South Florida hotel. She plans to submit a refund request to Southwest for her canceled flights and the extra expenses incurred.
Across the country, Southwest passengers who called customer service lines early this week to speak to a company representative were on hold for hours. The airline’s website and app — warning of extended wait times — also urged customers to speak with gate agents at airports, where they waited hours more.
On Christmas evening at Reagan National Airport, customers stood in line more than three hours to speak to Southwest employees about rebooking flights. That evening, a single employee was available at times to field customer concerns in the slow-moving line.
As tensions rose, customers complained they couldn’t recover luggage that had been checked in before flights were canceled. Customers who tried to find their own luggage were admonished by employees, prompting passengers to respond that no one was available to help.
The line was moving briskly on Tuesday as a half-dozen kiosks were staffed to assist passengers.
Evan Glass, president of the Montgomery County Council in suburban Washington, was visiting family in Fort Lauderdale when his Tuesday flight to Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport was canceled. He said the airline offered no instruction on how to return home.
He and his husband jumped on laptops and phones searching for a way to return, eventually finding a JetBlue flight out of West Palm Beach about an hour away. Glass said his chief of staff, who was in Albuquerque, also had her Southwest flight canceled and rented a car to begin the 27-hour drive.
“I have flown a lot of different airlines and take Southwest when I am able because I have found it to be reliable and affordable,” Glass said, “and I am surprised by what has happened this week.”
On Friday, a storm spreading heavy snow, ice and severe cold temperatures across significant portions of the United States was to blame for more than 5,000 flight cancellations. The storm also disrupted ground travel, with some long-distance and regional rail systems and bus lines canceling service while highway officials closed some roads because of unsafe conditions.
This is s developing story and will be updated.