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Southwest apologizes for stranding passengers, flight crews across US

Employees say Southwest’s outdated crew scheduling software is to blame for thousands of canceled flights, a holiday debacle set in motion by a brutal winter storm.

HOUSTON (CN) — Airport terminals and baggage claims across the United States are crowded with surly travelers and waylaid luggage Tuesday with airlines struggling to get back on track from disruptions caused by a deadly winter storm.

While all the major U.S. air carriers are canceling and delaying flights in the wake of a bomb cyclone that caused blizzard conditions in the Midwest and Northeast and left dozens dead, including at least 34 in Buffalo, New York, Southwest Airlines is by far the worst.

Known for its relatively inexpensive fares, free checked baggage and friendly flight crews, the Dallas-based airline had canceled 2,556 flights by 11 a.m. Tuesday, 63% of its total, according to FlightAware, an air-travel tracking website, following thousands of cancellations on Monday. Ninety percent of all U.S. flight cancellations on Tuesday were Southwest flights.

In an apologetic statement, Southwest said Monday it would be “operating a reduced schedule by flying roughly one third of our schedule for the next several days” and it is offering refunds to customers with reservations from Christmas Day through Jan. 2, allowing them to rebook or travel standby with no extra fees and telling them to provide receipts for reimbursement of meals, hotel rooms and alternate transportation.

“We’ll work to make things right for those we’ve let down, including our employees,” the company vowed.

And it is Southwest employees who are its harshest critics.

“Southwest Airlines has failed its employees once again, the result of years of failing to modernize operations,” Transport Workers Union Local 556, the union of Southwest flight attendants, said in a statement Monday.

“The result: thousands of crew members stranded across the country,” it added, “some forced to sleep on cots in airports, some in hotels without power or water, and far too many working long hours well past acceptable duty days.”

A person identifying themselves as a Southwest staffer stated Monday in a since-deleted social media post the airline’s crew scheduling software had crashed.

“And it almost all has to be unraveled over the phone with crew members calling scheduling. If we had better technology which eliminated the need for phone calls, this would have been fixed by now,” they wrote, warning passengers it could take more than a month before they get their checked baggage.

Southwest is also advising people not to call its overwhelmed phone system and directing them to its website to change or cancel their flights.

The airline’s issues have caught the attention of federal regulators.

The Transportation Department said in a Twitter post late Monday it “is concerned by Southwest’s unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays & reports of lack of prompt customer service” and it  will be looking into whether the cancellations were preventable.

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