Feds Gets Involved as Southwest Airlines Collapses During Christmas

A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-700 (N235WN) takes to the skies above San Jose International Airport, San Jose, California, United States. August 25, 2007. Photo: Dylan Ashe via Wikimedia Commons.

The only thing worse than being stranded in the airport is being stranded in the airport during the holiday season, and passengers of Southwest Airlines are well aware of this distinction this week.

That’s because the popular budget airline appears to be imploding before our very eyes, as a vast number of unexplained cancellations have abandoned passengers from coast to coast.

Things have gotten so bad, in fact, that the federal government is now investigating.

Major U.S. airlines were broadsided by the massive weekend winter storm that swept across large swaths of the country but had largely recovered by Tuesday, except for one.

Problems at Southwest Airlines appeared to snowball after the worst of the storm passed. It cancelled more than 70% of its flights Monday, more than 60% on Tuesday, and warned that it would operate just over a third of its usual schedule in the days ahead to allow crews to get back to where they needed to be.

American, United, Delta and JetBlue, suffered cancellations rates of between none and 2% by Tuesday.

This is where the feds decided to get involved.

The disparity has triggered a closer look at Southwest operations by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which called the rate of cancellations “disproportionate and unacceptable,” and sought to ensure that the Dallas carrier was sticking by its obligations to stranded customers.

The size and severity of the storm created havoc for airlines. Airports were overwhelmed by intense snowfall and drifts. Airlines cancelled as many as 20% of their flights Saturday and Sunday and Buffalo Niagara International Airport, close to the epicenter of the storm, remains closed Tuesday.

Yet it has become clear that Southwest is suffering a disproportionate disruption. Of the approximately 2,950 flight cancellations in the U.S. by midday Tuesday, 2,549 were called off by Southwest.

Adding insult to injury are claims being made by the Southwest Pilots’ Union chief, suggesting that the airline has refused to update its scheduling software, (first implemented in the 1990’s), even after complaints erupted during a similar disruption in October of last year.