After a winter storm pummeled many parts of the country, most airlines quickly bounced back from delays and cancellations. But not Southwest Airlines, which days later is still struggling from what executives and analysts describe as its biggest operational meltdown in its five-decade history.
The bad weather, coming a few days before Christmas, hit the airline harder than the rest of the industry because of inadequate computer systems that made it hard for the airline to get crews to waiting planes and put passengers on alternative flights, and a flight model that allowed problems at one airport to cascade to others.
“This is the worst round of cancellations for any single airline I can recall in a career of more than 20 years as an industry analyst,” Henry Harteveldt, who covers airlines for Atmosphere Research Group, said.
Thousands of travelers were stranded at airports, and many said Southwest had done little or nothing to get them to their destinations. Southwest canceled more than 2,900 flights on Monday; scrapped about 2,500 each day for the next two days, more than 60 percent of its schedule; and said it could take days to fully restore normal operations.
Fabian Maldonado, a construction manager from Los Angeles who described himself as a loyal Southwest customer, said he and his two sons flew from Burbank, Calif., to Sacramento on a Southwest flight on Monday, planning to fly from there to Spokane, Wash. But the Spokane flight was canceled, and Southwest did not notify him, he said.
“This is really kind of making me rethink them,” Mr. Maldonado said. “The customer service isn’t there; it’s falling apart.”
In a video statement on Tuesday night, Southwest’s chief executive, Bob Jordan, apologized to customers. He said that the airline had been unable to get flight crews to where they needed to be, compounding the effects of the bad weather, and that the “giant puzzle” could take days to solve.
“Our plan for the next few days is to fly a reduced schedule and reposition our people and planes,” Mr. Jordan said. “We’re making headway, and we’re optimistic to be back on track before next week.”
The Department of Transportation said in a statement on Monday that it would look into the problems at Southwest, adding that it was concerned by the airline’s “unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays” and reports of poor customer service. On Tuesday, President Biden reposted that statement on Twitter and urged customers to check to see if they were eligible for compensation.
All airlines have been under fire from lawmakers and regulators for delays and cancellations since demand for travel recovered from the pandemic in 2021. Many of the industry’s problems can be traced to staffing shortages that were caused in part by early retirements and buyouts that the industry offered workers after ticket sales collapsed in 2020.
Lyn Montgomery, the president of Transport Workers Union Local 556, which represents Southwest Airlines flight attendants, said she had spoken Tuesday with Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, to discuss the breakdown at Southwest. She said that Southwest’s technology was a major cause of the meltdown and that her union had long pressed the company’s leaders to improve it.
“We are going to make sure that we keep Southwest Airlines executives accountable for what’s happening so that the airline that we helped make successful is going to be reliable and stable once again,” Ms. Montgomery said in an interview.
Mr. Buttigieg said in a statement Tuesday that he had also spoken to Southwest’s chief executive, Mr. Jordan.
In an interview on Tuesday with NBC Nightly News, Mr. Buttigieg said, “Where most airlines saw their performance start to improve, Southwest has actually moved in the other direction,” adding, “It’s an unacceptable situation.”
Southwest was the first large airline to show a profit as the pandemic began to recede. And in some ways, it emerged as a big winner as people started flying and taking vacations again.
But analysts say problems were lurking in Southwest’s operations — problems that appear to have tripped the company up when bad weather arrived at the end of last week.
The storm, aviation experts said, had a disproportionate impact on Southwest because the company configures its network differently from the way the country’s three other large airlines — American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines — set up theirs.
Most carriers operate on a “hub and spoke” basis, with planes returning to a hub airport after flying out to other cities — United has hubs, for example, at the airports serving Newark, Houston and Denver. While Southwest does have a large presence at certain airports, it uses a “point to point” approach in which planes tend to fly from destination to destination without returning to one or two main hubs.
Hub-and-spoke airlines can shut down specific routes when bad weather hits, and with good planning, the companies can have crews and planes in place to restart operations when conditions improve. But Southwest can’t do that as easily without disrupting multiple flights and routes, Mr. Harteveldt said.
David Vernon, an airline analyst at Bernstein Research, said that Southwest’s approach allows the company to make greater use of its planes during normal times, but that when things go wrong, problems can spread quickly.
Of course, hub-and-spoke airlines can and have suffered big problems, particularly when bad weather or other issues cripple operations at one or more major hub airports.
Southwest, which has long prided itself on having good relations with its employees, has also recently struggled with staffing shortages that most likely have heightened tensions between management and workers, said Robert W. Mann Jr., a former airline executive who now runs the consulting firm R.W. Mann & Company.
“Southwest clearly took the worst of this,” Mr. Mann said. “I’ve got to think it was cultural more than anything else.”
The turmoil is a test for Mr. Jordan, a longtime Southwest official who took over as chief executive in February. The company’s stock price closed down about 6 percent on Tuesday.
Union leaders said a main cause of Southwest’s problems was inadequate computer systems that they said had failed to efficiently match crews with flights when cancellations started to accumulate. “They had committed to us that they have spent time and money on the infrastructure, but it has not been enough,” said Ms. Montgomery, the union leader. “The house of cards has fallen.”
Analysts also said Southwest had been slow to introduce new systems that would help it run its business. “Southwest has never viewed technology as a strategic priority,” Mr. Harteveldt said.
Those and other failures are expected to draw the scrutiny of officials in Washington, where lawmakers like Senator Maria Cantwell, who leads the Commerce Committee, called on Tuesday for stronger protections for travelers, including federal rules that require airlines to issue refunds for delayed or canceled flights.
Making matters worse for customers: Southwest has a policy of not exchanging tickets with other airlines, so the company could not rebook passengers on other flights, Mr. Harteveldt said. The debacle could force the airline to “buy back” frustrated customers with deeper discounts or conduct more promotions, he said.
No single region or airport bore the brunt of the cancellations, though airports with a large Southwest presence were hit the hardest. Those airports included Denver International, Chicago Midway, Harry Reid International in Las Vegas and Sacramento International.
It has been nearly a week since the winter storm began wreaking havoc for millions of travelers. The number of canceled flights began to rise Thursday, when airlines called off more than 2,600 of them. The next day, nearly 6,000, or about a quarter of all U.S. flights, were canceled across the country. On Saturday, Christmas Eve, nearly 3,500 flights were canceled, and slightly fewer, about 3,200, were cut from the schedules on Christmas Day.
Reporting was contributed by Derrick Bryson Taylor, Daniel Victor, Shawn Hubler, Mark Walker and Steve Lohr.