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Southwest Airlines' troubles continuing: Thousands more flights canceled

Holiday travelers stranded by airline chaos
Holiday travelers stranded by airline chaos 02:37

Southwest Airlines scrubbed thousands of flights again Wednesday as the company faced frustration from passengers and scrutiny from federal officials over its handling of its schedule in the aftermath of the massive storm that wrecked holiday travel plans across the U.S.

By Wednesday evening, about 86% of all canceled flights in the U.S. were from Southwest, which scrubbed more than 2,500 flights Wednesday, according to tracking service Flight Aware. On Tuesday, a day after most U.S. airlines had recovered from the storm, Southwest had called off about 2,600 more flights. Those flights accounted for more than 80% of the 3,000 trips that got canceled nationwide Tuesday, according to FlightAware.

And the chaos seems certain to continue. The airline has scrubbed more than 2,300 flights set for Thursday as it tries to restore order to its mangled schedule. That's another huge percentage of all scrapped U.S. flights for the day as noted by FlightAware, and 58% of Southwest's Thursday schedule.

Southest canceled more than 15,000 flights over the past week, according to data posted by FlightAware.

The company issued another apology Wednesday, but it could still take days before the situation is back to normal.

Several major airlines -- including American, Delta, and United -- tell CBS News they're capping fares in select cities to help stranded customers get home.

Southwest has blamed the massive winter storm last week for putting its crews out of position and is now running a reduced flight schedule in hopes of getting back on track by the new year.

Still, customers at airports with major Southwest operations faced long lines hoping to find a seat on another flight. They described waiting hours on hold for help, only to be cut off. 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.

Conrad Stoll, a 66-year-old retired construction worker in Missouri, planned to fly from Kansas City to Los Angeles for his father's 90th birthday party until his Southwest flight was canceled early Tuesday. He said he won't get to see his 88-year-old mother either.

"I went there in 2019, and she looked at me and said, 'I'm not going to see you again.'" Stoll said. "My sister has been taking care of them, and she's just like, 'They're really losing it really quick.'"

Stoll hopes to get another chance to see his parents in the spring, when the weather is warmer.

Holiday travel chaos continues with flight delays and cancellations 03:15

Adontis Barber, a 34-year-old jazz pianist from Kansas City, Missouri, had camped out in the city's airport since his Southwest flight was canceled Saturday and wondered if he would ever get to a New Year's gig in Washington, D.C.

"I give up," he said. "I'm starting to feel homeless."

The carrier also continued to be deluged with questions and complaints online. Said one person on Twitter, "[S]o let's get this straight. My bags get lost, and then DAMAGED, and when I try to contact you guys over the phone, for the past WEEK, all I get is two rings and the busy tone? What kind of customer service is that?"

CEO apologizes

In a video that Southwest posted late Tuesday, CEO Robert Jordan said Southwest would operate a reduced schedule for several days but hoped to be "back on track before next week."

Jordan blamed the winter storm for snarling the airline's "highly complex" network. He said Southwest's tools for recovering from disruptions work "99% of the time, but clearly we need to double down" on upgrading systems to avoid a repeat of this week.

Jordan, a 34-year Southwest veteran who became CEO in February, said he is "truly sorry" for the travel chaos, adding that "We have some real work to do in making this right."

Another Southwest executive issued a video apology Wednesday, highlighting new features on the company's website where affected travelers can go to rebook flights, request refunds and submit information on missing bags.

Ryan Green, Southwest's chief commercial officer, pledged "to do everything we can and to work day and night to repair our relationship" with passengers.

The problems began over the weekend and snowballed Monday, when Southwest called off more than 70% of its flights.

That was after the worst of the storm had passed. The airline said many pilots and flight attendants were out of position to work their flights. Leaders of unions representing Southwest pilots and flight attendants blamed antiquated crew-scheduling software and criticized company management.

southwest cancelations
Luis Hernandez, 61, left, Ruth Hernandez, with their dog Sissi wait for a ride home after their Southwest Airlines flight to Omaha, Nebraska, got cancelled at Los Angeles International Airport on Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. Irfan Khan

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."

Murray said managers resorted this week to asking pilots at some airports to report to a central location, where they wrote down the names of pilots who were present and forwarded the lists to headquarters.

In an internal memo, meanwhile, Southwest's vice president of group operations on Dec. 21 warned of a "state of operational emergency" at the airline's hub in Denver because of a high number of employee absences, according to Bloomberg News.

Lyn Montgomery, president of the Transport Workers Union representing Southwest flight attendants, said she and other labor leaders have repeatedly told management that the airline's scheduling technology is not good enough.

"This has been something we have seen coming," she said. "This is a very catastrophic event."

Buttigieg: Southwest should offer cash refunds

The airline is now drawing unwanted attention from Washington.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has criticized airlines for previous disruptions, said his agency would examine the causes of Southwest's widespread cancellations and whether the airline was meeting its legal obligations to stranded customers.

"While we all understand that you can't control the weather, this has clearly crossed the line from what is an uncontrollable weather situation to something that is the airline's direct responsibility," Buttigieg told "NBC Nightly News." He said Southwest should at least pay cash refunds for canceled flights and cover stranded passengers' hotel and meal costs.

In Congress, the Senate Commerce Committee also promised an investigation. Two Senate Democrats called on Southwest to provide "significant" compensation for stranded travelers, saying that the airline has the money because it plans to pay $428 million in dividends next month.

Bryce Burger and his family were supposed to be on a cruise to Mexico departing from San Diego on Dec. 24, but their flight from Denver was canceled without warning. The flight was rebooked through Burbank, California, but that flight was canceled while they sat at the gate.

"It's horrible," Burger said Tuesday by phone from Salt Lake City, where the family decided to drive after giving up the cruise.

The family's luggage is still at the Denver airport, and Burger doesn't know if he can get a refund for the cruise because the flight to California was booked separately.

At Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, travelers said they were told they won't be able to catch another Southwest flight until Saturday, according to CBS News DFW.

Death toll rises after monster winter storm 01:57

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.

Consumer advocates urged Congress to adopt new regulations to protect travelers. 

"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," said Teresa Murray, consumer watchdog with public interest group U.S. PIRG, in a statement.

"As federal officials examine how much of the mayhem was preventable, this catastrophe once again exposes the massive changes that are needed to better protect airline passengers. 

"Oh my God, we're getting on a plane!"

Kristie Smiley planned to return home to Los Angeles until Southwest canceled her Tuesday flight, so she waited at the Kansas City airport for her mother to pick her up. Southwest can't put her on another plane until Sunday, New Year's Day.

Smiley said the airline kept blaming the weather after the storm passed and didn't tell passengers why planes couldn't take off.

"They like acted like [Tuesday's flight] was going to go until they started saying, 'Oh, five more minutes. Oh, 10 more minutes.' I'm not sure what's up with them. It seems a little off," she said.

Southwest Cancellations
Tracy Joline, left, of Tampa, Florida, works to schedule a new flight on Southwest Airlines on Dec. 27, 2022, after her prior flight was cancelled at Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma, New York. James Carbone/Newsday RM via Getty Images

Danielle Zanin vowed never to fly Southwest again after it took four days, several canceled flights and sleeping in the airport before she, her husband and their two young children got home to Illinois from Albuquerque, New Mexico. They made stops at airports in Denver and Phoenix and reached Chicago only after ditching Southwest and paying $1,400 for four one-way tickets on American Airlines.

"I remember saying, 'Oh my God, we're getting on a plane!' I was honestly shocked because I thought we were stuck in airports forever," she said.

Zanin plans to ask Southwest to be reimbursed for part of their original tickets plus the new ones on American, and extra spending on rental cars, parking, an Uber ride and food — about $2,000 in all.

"I don't have good faith that they will do much of anything," she said.

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