US probes ‘unacceptable’ Southwest Airlines storm cancellations

Airline cancels more than two-thirds of scheduled flights over Christmas long weekend amid a devastating winter storm.

Travelers queue up to check in at the Southwest Airlines counter in Denver International Airport
Travellers queue to check in at the Southwest Airlines counter in Denver International Airport after a winter storm swept over the US, creating chaos for people trying to reach their destinations before Christmas on Friday, December 23, 2022, in Denver [David Zalubowski/AP Photo]

The United States Department of Transportation has said that it plans to examine mass flight cancellations and delays by Southwest Airlines in recent days, amid a devastating storm that has disrupted travel plans for millions of Americans during the holiday season.

The government agency said it would look to determine if the flight cancellations by Southwest — which in particular has faced flak from passengers online — were in the airline’s control, calling them “unacceptable”.

“USDOT is concerned by Southwest’s unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays and reports of lack of prompt customer service. The Department will examine whether cancellations were controllable and if Southwest is complying with its customer service plan,” the Transportation Department tweeted.

A powerful winter storm resulted in airlines cancelling thousands of flights over the long Christmas weekend. At least 48 people have died as large parts of the US battle frigid conditions.

Southwest declined to comment on the USDOT statement but pointed to a statement it issued earlier offering “heartfelt apologies” and said “with consecutive days of extreme winter weather across our network behind us, continuing challenges are impacting our customers and employees in a significant way that is unacceptable”.

According to the flight tracking website FlightAware, Southwest Airlines has cancelled 2,746 flights or nearly 69 percent of its schedule on Tuesday, with 2,475 flights due to be scrapped on Wednesday.

The airline added it was working “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”.

Other major US airlines suffered significant cancellations in recent days but not nearly at as high rates as Southwest and they have now largely recovered.

Frustrated passengers took to social media to vent their anger, with many recognising that the airline’s own employees – while at the front line – are overworked and short-staffed.

Passengers flying through the Baltimore Washington International (BWI) airport on Southwest were told that the earliest they could fly out is December 31, or New Year’s Eve.

“Yikes, @SouthwestAir! This is clearly a meltdown,” said former Transportation Security Administration (TSA) official Ross Feinstein on Twitter.

US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg simply tweeted: “I’m tracking closely & will have more to say about this tomorrow.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies