Southwest Airlines Cancels Most Flights, Gives Up

Earlier I wrote about how operationally unreliable airlines were on Christmas. Airlines are pushed to their limits during these peak travel periods, and on top of that the weather issues we saw throughout the country didn’t help. Broadly speaking, things are looking up today, as weather isn’t as much of a factor. Unfortunately you wouldn’t know this if you were flying Southwest Airlines, though…

Southwest Airlines cancels thousands of flights

Southwest Airlines’ operation has been melting down nationwide over the past several days. However, while other airlines are starting to recover today, Southwest is having its worst day yet.

As of the time of this post, data from FlightAware shows that Southwest Airlines has canceled 67% of its flights for today (Monday, December 26, 2022). That amounts to over 2,700 flights. We’re not even talking about delays, but just cancelations. That number is continuing to grow by the minute, and I wouldn’t be surprised if by the end of the day over 75% of flights (or more) are canceled.

As a point of comparison, yesterday Southwest canceled 42% of its flights and delayed 48% of its flights. In other words, 10% of flights operated as scheduled yesterday.

Over the past couple of years airlines have struggled with staffing shortages, and we’ve seen some real meltdowns. However, I can’t remember the last time a major airline had problems to the point that it canceled over 60% of its flights in a day.

Weather has improved considerably around the country today, so this isn’t even directly about weather. For example, Southwest has hubs in similar markets to American (Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, etc.), and today American has canceled *checks notes*… 0% of its flights. My gosh, I feel like I’m living in an alternate reality when American sets the standard for operational reliability, but that’s where we’re at.

At this point Southwest is just doing a horrible job recovering its operation. Presumably this largely comes down to staffing issues, as the airline doesn’t have enough employees for its operation to recover.

Southwest is canceling most flights today

Is it time for the government to do something?

The phrase “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” comes to mind. I can’t help but feel like that reflects the current situation at some airlines, and want to pose the question as to whether a public policy failure is partly to blame here.

I don’t think this is specific to any administration, but rather just comes down to the lack of consumer protections we’ve seen for airline passengers in the United States for decades.

Transportation Secretary Buttigieg has been working on meeting with airline CEOs to discuss operational reliability, and we’ve even seen the Department of Transportation (DOT) publish an airline customer service dashboard, to give airline customers a sense of what they can expect when things go wrong.

But when one of the largest airlines in the country cancels most of its flights because it scheduled too many flights, and when travel plans for hundreds of thousands of travelers are ruined, clearly that wasn’t quite enough.

If airlines were held accountable more for operational breakdowns, maybe they’d be more responsible and conservative with their scheduling:

  • Airlines’ only obligations seem to be to shareholders, and they want to sell as many seats as they can for as many flights as possible, to maximize revenue; they hope for the best, and fail to plan for the worst
  • If Southwest had planned its holiday operation more conservatively, the airline almost certainly wouldn’t have melted down in this way
  • US airlines don’t have to meaningfully compensate passengers when things go wrong, so worst case scenario passengers get a refund, but that doesn’t exactly make them whole
  • Based on the reports I’m seeing, airport employees are blaming almost all cancelations on “weather” (even if the issue is the carrier’s inability to recover from bad weather, rather than the weather as such), and therefore the claim is that the airline doesn’t have to pay for hotels, provide meal vouchers, etc.
  • Southwest doesn’t have an interline agreement with other airlines, so passengers on canceled Southwest flights can’t even be rebooked on other airlines (not that there are many empty seats to rebook people on)

The point is, the system is basically designed to minimize the downside for airlines being overly optimistic with their schedule planning, to the detriment of passengers. Imagine if the United States were more like Europe, where there’s EU261 compensation, and passengers receive up to 600 Euro cash compensation if their flight is delayed or canceled for an issue within the carrier’s control.

You can bet airlines would plan their schedules a bit more conservatively, because melting down to this point would be much more costly.

Would more regulation improve operational reliability?

Southwest Airlines statement on issues

After days of operational issues, Southwest Airlines has finally issued a statement regarding these challenges:

With consecutive days of extreme winter weather across our network behind us, continuing challenges are impacting our Customers and Employees in a significant way that is unacceptable.

And our heartfelt apologies for this are just beginning.

We’re working with Safety at the forefront to urgently address wide-scale disruption by rebalancing the airline and repositioning Crews and our fleet ultimately to best serve all who plan to travel with us.

We were fully staffed and prepared for the approaching holiday weekend when the severe weather swept across the continent, where Southwest is the largest carrier in 23 of the top 25 travel markets in the U.S. This forced daily changes to our flight schedule at a volume and magnitude that still has the tools our teams use to recover the airline operating at capacity.

This safety-first work is intentional, ongoing, and necessary to return to normal reliability, one that minimizes last-minute inconveniences. We anticipate additional changes with an already reduced level of flights as we approach the coming New Year holiday travel period. And we’re working to reach to Customers whose travel plans will change with specific information and their available options.

Our Employees and Crews scheduled to work this holiday season are showing up in every single way. We are beyond grateful for that. Our shared goal is to take care of every single Customer with the Hospitality and Heart for which we’re known.

On the other side of this, we’ll work to make things right for those we’ve let down, including our Employees.

With no concern higher than ultimate Safety, the People of Southwest share a goal to take care of each and every Customer. We recognize falling short and sincerely apologize.

It’s nice to see Southwest acknowledging that this is “unacceptable.” That being said:

  • It’s interesting that Southwest keeps trying to emphasize “safety,” when that’s not really relevant here, and seems like a way to avoid taking blame; I’m pretty sure American is also focused on safety, with 0% of flights canceled
  • It’s disingenuous to claim that the airline was “fully staffed and prepared” for the holiday; sure, maybe the airline had enough staff to operate if things went smoothly, but clearly the airline wasn’t fully staffed for any issues, which is why this all happened
  • The airline clearly isn’t willing to actually take any accountability here; how about acknowledging that the carrier’s schedule was too aggressive, and that staffing contributed to these issues?

Bottom line

Southwest Airlines’ operation is in disarray, as the airline has canceled most of its flights today, and the cancelations just keep on coming. While all airlines have been dealing with bad weather, Southwest simply doesn’t have enough staffing in place to recover its operation, so I expect that chaos will continue for the next few days.

Has anyone been caught up in this Southwest operational mess? What do you think the solution is to this issue?