DALLAS (AP) — Southwest Airlines grounded thousands of flights again Tuesday after a massive winter storm. It disrupted Christmas travel plans across the US, and the federal government said it would investigate why the company lagged so far behind other carriers.
Southwest grounded another 2,600 flights along the East Coast by midday, a day after most U.S. airlines had recovered from the storm. Those flights accounted for more than 80 percent of the 3,000 flights canceled nationwide on Tuesday, according to tracking service FlightAware.
And it seemed that the chaos would continue. The airline cut 2,500 flights on Wednesday and nearly 1,200 on Thursday as it tried to restore its erratic schedule.
At airports with large Southwest operations, customers stood in long lines hoping to get a seat on another flight. Some tried to hire cars to get to their destinations sooner. Others found places to sleep on the floor. The luggage piled up in huge piles.
Conrad Stoll, a 66-year-old retired construction worker from Missouri, had planned to fly from Kansas City to Los Angeles for his father’s 90th birthday party when his Southwest flight was canceled early Tuesday. He also said he will not be able to see his 88-year-old mother.
“I went there in 2019 and she looked at me and said, ‘I’m never going to see you again’.” Stoll said. “My sister takes care of them, and she’s like, ‘They lose it so quickly.'”
Stoll hopes to have another chance to see his parents in the spring when the weather is warmer.
The Dallas-based airline hasn’t said anything new about its woes. The company did not provide any updates Tuesday morning, and information about the cancellation was last updated on the company’s website on Monday.
The problems began over the weekend and snowballed on Monday, forcing Southwest to ground more than 70% of its flights.
That was after the worst of the storm had passed. The airline said many pilots and flight attendants were unable to work on their planes. Leaders of unions representing Southwest pilots and flight attendants criticized company management, blaming antiquated workforce scheduling software.
Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said the airline failed to fix problems that led to a similar meltdown in October 2021.
“There’s a lot of frustration because it’s so preventable,” Murray said. “Airplanes cannot connect crews to planes. The airline doesn’t even know where the pilots are.
Managers this week asked pilots at some airports to report to a central location, where they wrote down the names of pilots present and sent the list to headquarters, Murray said.
Lyn Montgomery, president of the Transportation Workers Union representing Southwest flight attendants, was scheduled to speak later Tuesday with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has criticized the airlines for past disruptions and is now taking an interest in Southwest’s woes.
“I take it to the highest level – that’s what we’ve done,” said a frustrated Montgomery. “It was a very catastrophic event.”
Buttigieg’s office confirmed he plans to speak with Montgomery, but declined to comment further on the turmoil at Southwest.
Late Monday, the Department of Transportation tweeted that it would investigate “Southwest’s unacceptable cancellation rates” and whether the airline is meeting its legal obligation to help stranded customers.
Southwest spokesman Jay McVeigh said as storm systems moved across the country, flight crews and flights were canceled due to lack of space.
“So we’re chasing our tails, trying to get back to normal as safely as possible, and that’s our number one priority as quickly as we can,” he said at a press conference in Houston late Monday. “That’s how we got to where we are today.”
Bryce Burger and his family were scheduled to sail from San Diego to Mexico on Dec. 24, but their flight from Denver was canceled without warning. The flight was rebooked via Burbank, California, but was canceled while they were sitting at the gate.
“My kids’ Christmases are ugly. It’s horrible,” Burger said by phone Tuesday from Salt Lake City, where the family decided to drive after abandoning the trip.
The family’s luggage is still at the Denver airport, and the flight to California was booked separately, so Burger doesn’t know if he’ll be able to get a refund for the trip.
Burger’s call logs show dozens of unsuccessful attempts to reach Southwest over two days. The company responded A tweet he sent. He said he and his family will each receive a $250 voucher.
Despite the high number of canceled flights Tuesday at airports where Southwest is a major carrier, including Denver, Chicago Midway, Las Vegas, Baltimore and Dallas, the size and intensity of the storm wreaked havoc on many airlines.
Spirit Airlines and Alaska Airlines both canceled about 10% of their flights, with American, Delta, United and JetBlue having the lowest cancellation percentages.
Buffalo Niagara International Airport in upstate New York, near the center of the storm, was closed Tuesday.
Kristy Smiley had planned to return home to Los Angeles until Southwest canceled her Tuesday flight, so she waited at the Kansas City airport for her mother to pick her up. Southwest won’t be able to put her on another flight until Sunday, New Year’s Day. She called other airlines, but the cheapest flight she found was $4,000.
“Now they’re just like, you know — taking advantage of it,” Smiley said. She still didn’t know what to think of Southwest.
“They wanted (the Mars flight) to go until they started saying, ‘Oh, five more minutes. Oh, 10 more minutes.’ I don’t know what happened to them. It seems a little off.”
Associated Press writers Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Missouri, and Talia Beatty in New York contributed to this story.