Southwest Cancels More Than Half Its Flights During Holiday Travel Crush


In a holiday weekend performance that the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) deemed “unacceptable,” Southwest Airlines canceled 48 percent of its flights on Sunday (Christmas Day), 70 percent on Monday, and anticipated canceling 60 percent on Tuesday, the latter representing more than 2,400 flights.

Casey Murray, the president of Southwest’s pilot union, was not buying the airline’s blaming the situation on weather, unprecedented as the weekend storms were. He said the storms were predicted and called the situation “disgraceful,” blaming the scheduling meltdown on “a failure of leadership; a failure of IT, and a failure of processes.”

“Our pilots are there,” Murray said. “This is devastating to our customers. [The pilots’] success is Southwest’s success. The infrastructure is just not there.”

In a statement, the DOT said it would “closely examine whether cancellations were controllable and whether Southwest is complying with its customer service plan as well as all other pertinent DOT rules,” adding it “is concerned by Southwest Airlines’ disproportionate and unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays as well as the failure to properly support customers experiencing a cancellation or delay.”

Southwest cited safety concerns, saying in a statement, “This safety-first work is intentional, ongoing, and necessary to return to normal reliability, one that minimizes last-minute inconveniences. As we continue the work to recover our operation, we have made the decision to continue operating a reduced schedule by flying roughly one third of our schedule for the next several days. And we’re working to reach customers whose travel plans will change to offer specific information and available options, also available at”

Mark Phelps
Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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  1. No matter what/who is at fault here, it has not happened as bad to other airlines. A real shame since usually Southwest does much better in customer service than the competition.

    • Arguments that the root cause of this problem are weather-related or safely-related are hollow. Southwest Airlines has a massive management problem and an obvious lack of strategic planning. That they have not updated their crew scheduling system since the 90’s is shocking- yet unsurprising- given corporate America’s drive to preserve the bottom line for shareholders and the C-suite. The out of touch mask-fearing loser Gary Kelly and his bootlicker and bean counter Bob Jordan don’t give a $$ about passengers or flight crews, only about whatever money they can milk out of this carcass before it sinks. Sad.

      • Not updating the crew scheduling system since the nineties sounds bad, but without context, I’m not sure it means anything.

        Plenty of other airlines have had failures of their crew systems since then, and it seems an area often pointed out as a reason less and less of the population wants to be a junior pilot. Something the unions are mostly responsible for. It’s also a heck of a lot simpler to schedule crews if you delete seniority rules from the constraints.

        Also, the whole anti corporate screed is tired. If anyone doesn’t want to work in a contentious environment, they should never join a union. It’s a guarantee of constant friction. I rarely experienced such craziness in my work environments, and much of that is due to simply taking months between jobs to find another good place (and I wasn’t always successful). Maybe if so many of the jobs weren’t locked up by unions, it would work out better for everyone?

        • How are unions responsible for the company’s failure to modernize their IT systems? SWA isn’t the only airline to be far behind the curve. IT issues are often at the top of the pilot group’s complaints. Seniority doesn’t matter much when the company doesn’t even know where their crews are located and can only reach them by phone. My understanding is that it wasn’t just crews out of position, it was weight & balance, getting performance numbers, and retrieving flight plans from dispatch.

          • If you were were working in any number of other industries, and you were an intelligent, highly skilled, and concerned professional who thought his company management was making bad choices, you would leave for a better company, start a new company, work with your management to improve, or ask for more responsibility in order to be part of the solution.
            None of these work for you except possibly start a new company. Of course, financing will be hard to get because of fear you will get unionized. The people who run the unions used their political clout to ensure THEIR continued careers at the expense of yours.

  2. “… Failure of IT…” Wha-a-a…? But that’s the eFuture, isn’t it? Where we’re told to place our trust?

    • What are you implying, KckC K.? That we shouldn’t be relying on IT (computers) to do anything important for us? I’m just trying to understand your comment.

  3. Beyond bad. Why I took early retirement, this right here. Obviously feel for the customers but really feel bad for the young F/A’s stuck out and missing their families. Bad enough to be working over the holidays, even worse to be stuck out longer with no way home for fear of being fired in retaliation.

  4. What happened to the SWA in the days of Herb Kelleher, when passengers and crew loved the airline? It has become a legacy airline which doesn’t assign seats. The answer is the unregulated oligopoly created by deregulation which gives passengers no rights and airlines no responsibilities. DOT is right to look into the matter, but it has limited statutory authority to act.

    • Why does DOT need to act? What exactly is the problem here that the market isn’t going to fix except a bunch of laws and regulations that make it an oligopoly and inefficient market?

      When there was deregulation, we got rid of SOME regulations. Not all of them, and they aren’t the only government created constraints.

      No, if you want a fix, it’s not coming under this administration. At best, their playbook offers short term help with long term negative consequences. (Not that the current Republicans would be likely to do any better).

      Their stock is plummeting, and many more flyers are now going to avoid them. If it weren’t for the dirt labor laws, they’d be losing pilots at a fast rate. No, the DoT has nothing to do here but act like they are doing something in order to protect the careers involved. Anything else will be harmful.

      • DOT is going to ensure that SWA forks over the required refunds and compensation. Congress will get involved, the question is what sort of draconian requirements will result that makes everything worse.

        • Really? We need a federal department to ensure a company gives proper refunds? The courts and the market suffice for most industries. The courts often aren’t much value add either, come to think of it.

          I’m pretty sure SWA is going to get smacked plenty hard enough. The Feds need to sit.

    • The answer is the unregulated oligopoly created by corporate lobbyists which gives customers and employees no rights and corporations no responsibilities.

      • Lol, employees have plenty of rights. Primarily, they can walk. The SWA folks have unionized and stayed that way giving them extra special rights at the cost of everyone else.
        I’m not feeling bad for them until I hear something more. The people I felt bad for were the Continental employees and stockholders. They got shafted.

  5. This mess is beyond unbelievable. Basically shut down now for a few more days. Holiday time, thousands of families just stuck for who knows how long. The other airlines only had about a 7% cancellation. Someone best get their act together and fork over some money and support to all these stranded passengers. SWA, used to love them. Now can’t trust them.

  6. One needs look no further than the Southwest corporate boardroom to find the real problems at Southwest Airlines.

  7. From an anonymous SW pilot:

    “I don’t know what to say. Southwest Airlines has imploded. Their antiquated software system has completely fried. Planes are parked. Crews are stranded in the airports with the passengers, volunteering to take the passengers in the parked planes but the software won’t accept it. Phone lines are overwhelmed for both passenger and crews. I personally spent over two hours trying to get ahold of anyone in the company last night after midnight. A Captain and I did manage to get the one flight put together on Christmas night and got people home. Kudos to the ops agent and dispatcher for making it happen. We had to manually input a lot of the data and it took over an hour to coordinate with dispatch going back and forth running numbers.

    We spent hours trying to get the company to answer and get us a hotel when we landed as they’re all sold out. We were only put in a call que for hours before hanging up. I found one hotel with 4 rooms and we bought our own rooms at 2:30am. I even paid for a Flight Attendants room. We literally have crews sleeping on the airport floors all over the country with nowhere to go. Crews have been calling to fly anyone, anywhere, but the company says the system needs a reset. They have effectively shut down the operations for the rest of year, running 1/3 of the flights so that they can let the computer find and locate the crews and aircraft. Gate agents are in tears. They’ve been yelled at, cussed at, slapped and spit on. Flight attendants have been taking a beating. The frontline employees have had little support or communication. Terminals are standing room only with people having been there for days. Pilot lounges are packed with pilots ready to fly and nowhere to go.

    Embarrassing is an understatement. I’m going on my second of three days off, still stuck on the east coast and still expected to show up in the morning with no schedule. And I’m willing to fly all day if needed. Because that’s nothing compared to the passengers needing meds in bags that are lost and mothers traveling with kids, having been stuck for the same amount of days in the terminal. In 24 years, I’ve never seen anything like this. Heads need to roll! Rumors on media are floating that there is a lack of crews and pilots are staging sick calls. Absolutely not true at all. This is a computer system meltdown. Thousands of crew members are sitting in hotels and airports with nowhere to go. This airline has failed miserably.”

    • Well, thanks for your efforts anyhow. It all sure sucks. I fly with SWA on the 6th to a must do. Hope it is regathered by then. Would never have imagined.

    • Wow. Thanks for sharing? Why can’t any of the ‘journalists’ in media go to an airport and talk to someone who knows what’s going on?

  8. SW’s union is blaming collapse of their IT system (as a proxy for management, of course) but it’s probably more related to the inherent complexity of their point-to-point route structure. For the advantages it offers to their customers during normal operations, having so many possible trouble nodes that can disrupt normal aircraft & crew movement builds in considerably more vulnerability to a wide-spread weather disruption like this one.

    • The “complexity of the point to point” operations are being proffered as a lame excuse by SW and being parroted by media. SW has it easier than other airlines due to their choosing to operate a single aircraft type in a network of simple domestic operations. They don’t deal with matching pilots to aircraft types, or international regulations and constraints (Cancun, San Juan, Hawaii aren’t remotely as difficult as the North Atlantic). The management of a station that is unflyable for a period is to skip that station.

      Operationally, they connect 30% of their customers. Accommodating De-icing and low visibilities are no different than at legacies, whose crews and jets don’t merely fly back and forth between the same cities all day. The media depicts it as if the major airlines have only one hub. They don’t, and aircraft and more importantly, crews, move between all of the hubs, they don’t just return to the same one, and they also fly direct between non-hub cities. The larger the aircraft, the more this is the case.

      Their issues are about 95% of not being able to communicate with crews other than over the phone. The schedulers have to manually input and manually make up flights. It’s long been an issue.

      To give you an idea, I have a former Navy bud who flys for SW. He spent three days on the road starting on Christmas morning. He did not fly one “trip”. He dead headed five times, without flying a single flight in the cockpit, and didn’t move one passenger over those three days.

  9. Seriously Avweb, don’t you review these racists remarks?

    This comment and how it is written mimicking Asians is a major disservice to Asian pilots and mainly to anyone who is a civilized human being, how dare AvWeb let remarks like this be posted.

    Avweb you are doing a disservice to pilots and especially some of us new younger pilots who come here for guidance and not wanting to read any racist comments but after seeing how poorly you are at reviewing racist remarks like this, well I’m done with racists sites and dumb comments.

    I remember some time ago there were some stories about how the avionics industry needs to start working on recruiting younger pilots to the ranks and at first I was thrilled with articles such as this but now after reading a comment like this, well I realize that with racist comments like this that I don’t want to frequent this site anymore.

    • AvWeb consistently has some of the most racist, misogynistic, q-leaning comments I’ve ever seen. AvWeb mods pretty much ignore them.

      Keep reading the comments on this site and be amazed!

    • I their defense, I don’t think AvWeb has the staff to moderate comments with any consistency. Yes, they delete stuff from time to time, but it takes a while.

    • Agreed, Mike – and thanks for calling it out. The Avweb comment section is consistently a dumpster fire.

  10. One if the biggest crimes by SW management is claiming weather caused the problems simply because that excuse relieves them of economic consequences to passengers. They are mostly lying, it is a scam, and various regulatory agencies including criminal investigations are in order. I guess it is Southwest’s turn on the commercial airline financial screw-up marry-go-round that results in bankruptcy, screwing all the shareholders, debtors, retirement programs etc. and lets the corporate scum escape with their severance packages. Besides that, SW’s color schemes have always sucked.

  11. It is interesting how we are seeing more and more issues with the boring unsexy back room stuff that actually makes things work. This is not just in the airlines but in many other businesses.

    The problem is you have to spend money now that will either eliminate a future problem or not show it’s value until well into the future. Either way the executives don’t get immediate credit for planning ahead and that is anathema for todays bean counter MBA annual bonus focused C suite denizens, and that is assuming the top guys even know anything about how their business actually runs.

    The person who could have prevented this was the previous CEO who timed his retirement perfectly, escaping with a bag full of cash just before the consequences of his short term thinking manifested themselves. The guy who is getting blamed is the current CEO who has been in the job less than 10 months.

    Either way it is IMO far more likely that SW management is counting on customers short term memory as the “solution” to their current problems over doing the heavy lifting to future proof the SW IT/IM system.

  12. This is a terrible thing to happen, especially over Christmas, but some of these passengers are acting like they’ve been stranded at Buffalo’s airport. Sleeping on the floor for two days? Still showing up at the airport thinking somehow your flight won’t be canceled when ever other one is? Most of these passengers are stuck at major airports where there are some other options, other airlines, rental cars, rail service, maybe even your own car in the parking lot. I realize there may be some travelers with limited options due to financial issues, but a lot of them need to stop waiting for Southwest to take care of them and get a little proactive.