Southwest Airlines promises stability after mass US cancellations

US Department of Transportation vows to investigate Southwest Airlines for cancellations following severe winter storm.

Stranded passengers sit in an airport
Mass cancellations by Southwest Airlines, caused partly by a powerful winter storm, have disrupted travel for more than one million customers [Damian Dovarganes/AP Photo]

The United States-based Southwest Airlines has said that normal operations will resume on Friday, concluding several days of meltdown that included more than 13,000 cancelled flights that affected more than 1 million people.

A powerful winter storm complicated travel during the busy year-end holiday season in the US, and the company has struggled to respond, causing outrage among customers and lawmakers, who noted that other airlines have found ways to manage the storm.

“We are past the point where they could say this is a weather-driven issue,” US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said in an interview on Wednesday. “What this indicates is a system failure.”

On Thursday, airlines such as Delta, American and United cancelled a total of about 30 flights by late morning, while Southwest had cancelled another 2,350. Southwest’s cancellations account for about 58 percent of its schedule, and the transportation department said on Tuesday that it would investigate the “unacceptable” disruptions.

On Tuesday, the airline’s CEO Bob Jordan apologised to customers and employees for the mass cancellations, stating that the company would make upgrades to ensure that “we never again face what’s happening right now”.

Both Jordan and Buttigieg have come under fire from critics who say the fiasco is indicative of larger structural issues in the US airline industry that the government has been slow to take on.

In June, left-wing Senator Bernie Sanders penned a letter to the Biden administration addressing the issue.

“All over this country, airline passengers are growing increasingly frustrated by the massive increase in flight delays, cancellations and outrageously high prices they are forced to pay for tickets, checked bags and other fees,” he wrote.

Sanders resumed his criticism of the airline industry on Thursday, accusing Southwest of corporate “greed”. He said that the company had spent billions of dollars on stock buybacks and received $7bn in government assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Southwest has been the most profitable airline in the US in 2022, earning $759m in net income through September. The company’s stock price fell by about 8 percent this week, but it remains unclear what the total losses will be from this week’s mass cancellations.

A much smaller disruption that resulted in about 2,000 cancellations in October 2021 cost the company $75m.

Lyn Montgomery, president of the Southwest Airlines Flight Attendants Union, has said that workers at the company have been bringing attention to the airline’s technological failures for years.

“There are many ways it could have been avoided,” Montgomery told CNN on Thursday.

Southwest created a web portal this week to help affected customers request refunds and additional expenses, saying that the company would consider covering “reasonable” expenses for meals, lodging and other forms of transportation between December 24 and January 2.

Consumer advocates said that the use of the word “reasonable” was too vague.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies