Southwest Airlines flight cancellations continue to snowball

DALLAS (AP) — Passengers counting on Southwest Airlines to pick them up were hit with another wave of flight cancellations Wednesday, as pressure mounts on the federal government to help customers get paid for the airline’s collapse. Reimbursement for unexpected expenses incurred.

Weary Southwest travelers tried to find seats on other airlines or rent cars to get to their destinations, but many remained stranded. The airline’s chief executive said flight schedules could return to normal next week.

Adontis Barber, a 34-year-old jazz pianist from Kansas City, Missouri, has been camping out at the city’s airport since his Southwest flight was canceled Saturday, wondering if he could make it to Washington, D.C.’s New Year’s gig

“I gave up,” he said. “I started feeling homeless.”

To the East Coast, Southwest Airlines accounted for about 90 percent of all canceled flights in the U.S. on Wednesday, according to the FlightAware tracking service. Other airlines were recovering from the severe winter storm that battered large swaths of the country over the weekend, but not Southwest.

Air Dallas’ failure was the result of a combination of factors, including an outdated crew scheduling system and a network design that allowed cancellations in one region to spread quickly across the country. These weaknesses are not new — they led to a similar failure at Southwest Airlines in October 2021.

The federal government is now investigating what happened to Southwest Airlines, which carries more passengers within the United States than any other airline.

In a video posted by Southwest late Tuesday, CEO Robert Jordan said Southwest will reduce flights for a few days but hopes to “get back on track by next week.”

Jordan blamed the winter storm for disrupting the airline’s “highly complex” network. The tools Southwest uses to recover from outages “work 99% of the time, but obviously we need to double down” on upgrading the system to avoid a repeat this week, he said.

“We’ve got some real work to do to get that right,” said Jordan, a 34-year Southwest veteran who became chief executive in February. “Now, I want you to know we’re committed to this.”

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has criticized the airline for previous outages, said “crash” was the only word he could think of to describe what happened at Southwest this week. While the industry-wide cancellation rate has dropped to about 4% of scheduled flights, Southwest’s cancellation rate remains above 60%, he noted.

From high cancellation rates to customers being unable to reach Southwest by phone, the airline’s performance was unacceptable, Buttigieg said. He has vowed to hold the airline accountable and push it to reimburse passengers.

“They need to make sure those stranded passengers get where they need to go and provide them with adequate compensation,” including missed flights, hotels and meals, he said Wednesday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

In Congress, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee has also pledged to investigate. Separately, two other Senate Democrats called on Southwest Airlines to provide “substantial” compensation for stranded passengers, saying the airline has money because it plans to pay a $428 million dividend next month.

Southwest’s union leaders have warned for years that the airline’s crew scheduling system dating back to the 1990s was deficient, and the chief executive this week acknowledged that the technology needs an upgrade.

Other large U.S. airlines use a “hub-and-spoke” network, in which flights radiate from a few main or hub airports. This has helped limit the extent of damage caused by severe weather in parts of the country.

Southwest Airlines, however, has a “point-to-point” network in which aircraft travel across the country during the day. This increases the utilization and efficiency of each aircraft, but a problem in one place can spread across the country, leaving crews stuck in place.

Barber, a musician from Kansas City, already missed a show in Dallas on Sunday, but hopes to make it to Washington in time for his New Year’s show near the National Mall.

“I missed money,” he lamented.

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Associated Press writer Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City contributed to this report.

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