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Travelers "beyond frustrated" by Southwest Airlines cancellations: "It's been hell"

Winter storm causes widespread travel chaos
Winter storm causes widespread holiday travel chaos 02:56

The winter storm that disrupted travel plans over the weekend and created an epic pile-on of flight cancellations for Southwest Airlines left the carrier's passengers "beyond frustrated," as one put it to CBS DFW. Thousands of families were stranded, with some waiting days to board planes.

Now, two Democratic senators are calling on the carrier to make travelers whole with "significant monetary compensation for the disruption to their holiday plans."

"Southwest is planning to issue a $428 million dividend next year – the company can afford to do right by the consumers it has harmed," Senators Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said Tuesday.

Southwest on Tuesday had canceled more than 2,660, or 65%, of its scheduled flights as of 8 p.m. Eastern time, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware. That accounted for more than half of the roughly 5,000 flights scrapped today. Other airlines also continued to experience disruptions, with Southwest leading the way with 870 delayed flights.

Talia Jones, a Southwest Air customer, told CBS DFW she was "beyond frustrated and hurt because I can't see my dad. So yeah, it's very disappointing."

On Monday afternoon, the board at Dallas Love Field, Southwest's main hub, showed every single arrival had been canceled, according to reporter Kelly Laco.

At Chicago's Midway International Airport — where Southwest is the main carrier — the wait times were high, and patience was running low Monday night, CBS Chicago said.

The situation was described by one traveler as nothing short of a mess. In addition to long lines taking up space, hundreds and hundreds of bags were waiting to be claimed as the cancellations and delays kept piling up.

"It's been hell," said Denzil Smothers, whose flight was canceled. 

People also took to social media to blast Southwest, including one Twitter user who on Tuesday posted video of bags piled up in Chicago at Midway Airport. 

"We know irregular operations are frustrating for everyone involved, and we are truly sorry for any disappointment," Southwest told one traveler on Twitter who was upset by the flurry of canceled flights.

The federal Department of Transportation on Monday said it would investigate the meltdown, saying it was "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." 

"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," the department said in a statement.

Traveler Michael Bauzon and his family planned on flying out of Orlando International Airport on Friday to return home to Indianapolis in time for Christmas on Sunday. Instead, the four spent the holidays in a hotel after their flight was canceled, Bauzon told CBS affiliate WKMG, and were back at the airport on Monday — where they continued to wait.

"This morning we got here at 4:30 for a 7:05 flight, we looked it up, and oh it had just been canceled," he said, gesturing to a line snaking in front of the Southwest service counter. "It's a four- to five-hour line ... before they can get us on a flight — if they can get us on a flight," he said.

Southwest cancels more than 2,800 flights
Passengers lined up by the Southwest Airlines counter at San Francisco International Airport on Dec. 26, 2022. Tayfun Coskun / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Widespread storm, outdated tech

In a statement Monday that opened with "heartfelt apologies," Southwest said that its geography made it "uniquely" vulnerable to the storm, with half of the airports in which it flies affected by winter weather.

"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," the statement said. 

In a video statement Tuesday, CEO Bob Jordan said that many of the carrier's planes and crews were "out of position in dozens of locations."

"After days of trying to operate as much of our full schedule across the busy holiday weekend, we reached a decision point to significantly reduce our flying to catch up," Jordan added. "We're focused on safely getting all of the pieces back into position to soon end this rolling struggle."

Jordan said he was "optimistic" that the airline would be "ostensibly back on track before next week."

"We anticipate additional changes with an already reduced level of flights as we approach the coming New Year holiday travel period," the company's statement noted. 

The company also blames a lack of technology. "Part of what we're suffering is a lack of tools. We've talked an awful lot about modernizing the operation, and the need to do that," CEO Bob Jordan said in an internal message on Sunday that was reported by several media outlets and the flight attendants' union. 

Jordan said in his video address that "the tools we use to recover from disruption serve us well 99% of the time, but clearly we need to double down on our plans to upgrade systems for these extreme circumstances so that we never again face what's happening now."

Many are now calling on Southwest to do more than apologize. Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Edward Markey of Massachusetts are demanding that the carrier give travelers cash to compensate for their inconvenience. They point out that the company, which plans to give out $428 million in dividends next year, "can afford to do right by the consumers it has harmed."

"Southwest cannot avoid compensating passengers by claiming these flight cancellations were caused by recent winter storms. As Southwest executives have acknowledged, the mass cancellations yesterday were largely due to the failure of its own internal systems," they said Tuesday.

Jordan in his video address said he had reached out to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg "to continue the discussions we've been having with the DOT through the holiday, sharing all that we're doing to make things right for our customers." 

Jammed phone lines, systems

Meanwhile, the flight attendants' union, Transit Workers Union 556, accused the airline of contributing to the problem by underinvesting in technology for years.

"The lack of technology has left the airline relying on manual solutions and personal phone calls, leaving flight attendants on hold with Southwest Airlines for up to 17 hours at a time simply to be released to go home after their trip, or while attempting to secure a hotel room or know where their next trip will be," the union said in a statement. "While reroutes and rescheduling are understood to be a part of the job in the airline industry, the massive scale of the failure over the past few days points to a shirking of responsibility over many years for investing in and implementing technology that could help solve for many of the issues that plague flight attendants and passengers alike."

The union and airline have been in contract negotiations for four years.

The Public Interest Research Group on Tuesday called for an overhaul of airline regulations and harsher punishment of carriers with chronically late or canceled flights.

"While the awful weather isn't anyone's fault, the way travelers were treated and accommodated — or not — sits squarely on the shoulders of most of the airlines," PIRG consumer watchdog Teresa Murray said in a statement.

— With reporting by Zel Elvi, Kathryn Krupnik, Kris Van Cleave and Brian Dakss.

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