Why Did Southwest Cancel Thousands Of Flights? Here’s What Happened.


Five days after severe winter weather wreaked havoc on holiday air travel across the United States, most major carriers are back up and running. Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and United Airlines each canceled fewer than 40 flights on Wednesday, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking service. Delta had the fewest with only 15 cancellations.

At Southwest, it was a very different story.

More than 2,500 flights, or 62 percent of its planned flights on Wednesday, had been canceled, according to FlightAware. And Southwest said in a statement on Wednesday that it planned to fly one third of its scheduled flights for the next several days as it tries to return to normal operations, meaning it would continue to cancel close to 2,500 flights a day. Some passengers, unable to rebook Southwest flights, rented cars or spent hundreds of dollars to buy tickets on other airlines.

So what caused the meltdown?

Southwest uses a “point-to-point” route model that often lets passengers fly directly from smaller cities and regions without having to stop at a central hub like Denver or New York. Point-to-point flights cut travel times by eliminating the intermediate stop — typically a big advantage for travelers who are not flying from major metro areas.

Other large carriers like United and American rely on a “hub-and-spoke” model in which planes typically fly from smaller cities to a hub airport where passengers change planes.

“The only way to reset is to get the planes and crew back to where they should be,” Mr. Arnot said. “And the only way to do that is to cancel a huge amount of flights.”

Unlike other major carriers, Southwest does not have agreements with other airlines that allow passengers to fly on competitors’ planes when there is a cancellation or significant delay. “Most low-cost carriers do not have these agreements in place,” Mr. Arnot said, largely because those agreements are expensive.

“If your flight is canceled, you are compensated,” he said of Southwest passengers. Or passengers are rebooked on the next available flight with the same airline.

For thousands of Southwest passengers in the last few days that was not a viable alternative.

Katie McNamara, an art director from Brooklyn, visited family in Mississippi for the holiday with her husband, Justin, and their two children, who are 8 and 2.

They were scheduled to fly back on Wednesday from New Orleans but when their flight was canceled, they could find no other flights on Southwest’s website until at least Jan. 31.

They paid $1,500 for four one-way tickets to New York on JetBlue on Friday. Ms. McNamara said she hoped Southwest will cover the extra cost but was waiting to call customer service. (The airline directed customers to a website to rebook flights or request refunds.)

“I doubt they’re answering their phones at the moment,” she said.

Southwest said that “requests for reasonable reimbursements directly related to the travel disruption” would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

Ms. McNamara, 37, who has used Southwest for years for direct flights to visit family in Texas, New Mexico and Mississippi, said the current fiasco won’t keep her from booking with the airline again.



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