The Southwest Airlines disaster has stranded thousands of passengers over the holiday season. The Dallas-based airline cancelled another 2,509 flights on Wednesday morning, according to tracking database FlightAware.
The federal government is getting involved. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told NBC Nightly News on Tuesday that Southwest Airlines will be under federal investigation. Secretary Buttigied added that the airline at a minimum should pay customers cash refunds for cancelled flights.
“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 said.
The Senate Commerce Committee has also vowed to launch an investigation into the Southwest Airlines imbroglio. Two Senate Democrats called on Southwest to give “significant” compensation to stranded travelers.
The senators also pointed out that the airline has the funds because it plans to pay $428 million in dividends next month.
Southwest Airlines made the recent announcement to customers that alternate flights may not be available to them until after New Year’s Eve. The airline has already canceled 11,000 flights in recent weeks.
While the chaos is being attributed to the fallout from a powerful winter storm, the flight cancellations have impacted customers around the nation — including in southern states that have been largely unaffected by winter storms.
There were more than 2,800 flights canceled as of Tuesday morning, but the great majority of them — 2,526 flights — were for Southwest Airlines, according to the flight tracking website FlightAware.
Southwest CEO Bob Jordan told the Wall Street Journal that the airline planned to operate at around one-third of regular capacity as it attempted to get flights back on track.
“This is the largest scale event that I’ve ever seen,” he said.
On December 21, before the recent “bomb cyclone” pummeled the Great Plains states, Great Lakes region, and Northeast, Southwest Vice President for Ground Operations Chris Johnson admonished staff in Denver for the unusually high number of callouts.
The Vice President’s memo to Denver ramp agents raised the bar for excused absences in respect to claims of health emergencies and instituted “mandatory overtime.”
“This Operational Emergency will remain in place until it is lifted by memo from me advising of the same,” Johnson said. “This is not the type of communication I (or any Leader) want to issue, but it is necessary to get the Agents back on track in order to serve our Customers.”
The staffing issues have led to a nightmare scenario for holiday travelers who were caught off-guard by Southwest Airlines’ company wide meltdown.
“Furious and weary travelers… unloaded on Twitter, flooding Southwest with reports of the headaches they’ve encounter and continue to face,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “Passengers described waiting on long lines that extended outside of airport terminals, missing luggage that in some cases traveled onward despite canceled flights or piled up unclaimed for days, waiting on customer service calls for hours or repeatedly getting disconnected, and trying to navigate a glitchy website.”
“Some passengers said they didn’t receive an email or text message about their flight’s status, and instead learned through a notice on the company’s app from Flight Aware or from family and friends,” the report added.
In December 2021, Southwest Airlines experienced massive disruption during a reported ‘sickout.’ The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association had recently filed a lawsuit against the airline over the company’s vaccine mandate.
“Several times since August 30, 2021, Southwest Airlines has taken new unilateral actions which violate the status quo between the parties in further violation of the Railway Labor Act,” the lawsuit explicitly states. “Most recently, on October 4, 2021, Southwest Airlines unilaterally rolled out a new and nonnegotiated COVID vaccine mandate for all employees, including SWAPA pilots. The new vaccine mandate unlawfully imposes new conditions of employment and the new policy threatens termination of any pilot not fully vaccinated by December 8, 2021. Southwest Airlines’ additional new and unilateral modification of the parties’ collective bargaining agreement is in clear violation of the RLA.”
There were nearly 2,000 flight cancellations over the subsequent weekend. The former CEO Gary Kelly denied that protests over the company’s vaccine mandate had led to a “sickout.”
“There’s just no evidence of that,” Kelly claimed about the reported ‘sick out.’ “Our people are working very hard, they’re doing a great job, I’m very proud of them.”
Kelly did acknowledge that the vaccine mandate is “very controversial,” and not something he wanted for his company. While he was CEO, many Covid vaccine exemptions for pilots were granted, according to reports at the time.
Southwest Airlines is building a track record of holiday season chaos. It might behoove the airline to treat its pilots, workers, and customers with a little more respect.
Follow Kyle Becker on Twitter @kylenabecker.