Southwest and other airlines are canceling thousands of flights across the United States

After a A winter storm Affected many parts of the country, most airlines quickly recovered from delays and cancellations. But not Southwest Airlines, which is still struggling days after what executives and analysts are describing as its biggest operational meltdown in its five-decade history.

Bad weather in the days leading up to Christmas hit the airline industry harder than any other industry, as inadequate computer systems made it difficult to escort flight crews to waiting flights and board passengers on alternative flights, and the flight model allowed problems at one airport to be layered onto others.

“This is the worst cancellation for any airline that I can recall in more than 20 years as an industry analyst,” said Henry Hartveldt, who covers airlines for Atmosphere Research Group.

Thousands of passengers were stranded at airports and many said Southwest did little or nothing to get them to their destinations. Southwest canceled more than 2,900 flights on Monday and about 2,500 each day for the next two days, covering more than 60 percent of its schedule, and said it could take days to fully restore normal operations.

Fabian Maldonado, a Los Angeles-based construction manager who described himself as a loyal Southwest customer, said he and his two sons planned to fly Monday from Burbank to Sacramento on Southwest and then on to Spokane, Wash. But the Spokane flight was canceled and Southwest didn’t notify him, he said.

“It really makes me reconsider them,” Mr. Maldonado said. “The customer service is not there; It falls apart.”

In a statement, Southwest said its performance was “unacceptable” and apologized to its customers. The airline, which declined to make its executives available for an interview, said it was unable to get flight crews to where they needed to be, compounded by bad weather.

“Our biggest issue at this time is getting our crews and our aircraft in the right places,” Southwest spokesman Chris Perry said in an email.

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To get its system back on track, the airline is requiring some employees to work overtime and barring them from taking time off without a doctor’s note, according to a memo sent to workers at its Denver operation by The Times.

Department of Transport said in a statement on Monday It said it would look into the problems at Southwest and was concerned about the airline’s reports of “unacceptable cancellations and delays” and poor customer service. Tuesday, President Biden He retweeted the statement and urged customers to check whether they are eligible for compensation.

All airlines have suffered delays and cancellations from lawmakers and regulators The demand for travel has recovered 2021 from the pandemic. Many of the industry’s problems are due in part to labor shortages. Early retirement and purchases The industry has laid off workers after ticket sales slumped in 2020.

Lynn Montgomery, president of Transportation Workers Union Local 556, which represents Southwest Airlines flight attendants, said she spoke with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Tuesday to discuss the breakup at Southwest. He said Southwest’s technology was a major reason for the meltdown and that his union had long pressed company leaders to improve it.

“We’re going to make sure that we hold Southwest Airlines executives accountable for what’s going on so that the airline that we’ve helped to succeed is once again reliable and stable,” Ms. Montgomery said in an interview.

Mr. Buttigieg said in a statement Tuesday that he had also spoken with Southwest’s chief executive. Bob Jordan.

Southwest was the first major airline to show profits as the pandemic began to ease. And in some ways, it turned out to be a big winner as people started flying and taking vacations again.

Aviation experts said the storm had a disproportionate impact on Southwest because the company structures its network differently than the big three airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines.

Most carriers operate on a “hub and spoke” basis, with flights returning to the hub airport after flying to other cities — United has hubs, for example, at Newark, Houston, and Denver airports. Although Southwest has a large presence at some airports, it uses a “point-to-point” approach, in which planes tend to fly from destination to destination without returning to one or two major hubs.

Hub and spoke airlines can close specific routes when bad weather hits, and with good planning, companies can keep crews and aircraft ready to resume operations when conditions improve. But Southwest can’t easily do that without disrupting many flights and routes, he said.

David Vernon, an aviation analyst at Bernstein Research, said Southwest’s approach allows for greater utilization of its planes during normal times, but when things go wrong, problems can spread quickly.

Of course, hub-and-spoke airlines can run into major problems, especially when bad weather or other issues shut down operations at one or more major hub airports.

Southwest, which has long prided itself on its good relations with its employees, has recently struggled with labor shortages, which may have exacerbated tensions between management and labor, said former airline executive Robert W. Mann Jr. said. The firm is RW Mann & Company.

“Southwest clearly took the worst of it,” Mr. said the deer. “I have to think it’s more cultural than anything else.”

The upheaval led Southwest CEO Mr. It represents a test for Jordan, a longtime company official who took the top job in February. The company’s share price fell about 6 percent on Tuesday.

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Union leaders attributed Southwest’s problems to inadequate computer systems, which they said failed to efficiently match crews with flights when cancellations began. “They promised us they spent time and money on infrastructure, but it wasn’t enough,” said Ms. Montgomery, the union president. “The house of cards has fallen.”

Analysts also said Southwest has been slow to introduce new systems to help it run its business. “Southwest has never seen technology as a strategic priority,” Mr. Hartvelt said.

Those and other failures are expected to draw scrutiny from officials in Washington, where lawmakers such as Senator Maria Cantwell, the chairman of the Commerce Committee, on Tuesday called for stronger protections for travelers, including requiring airlines to issue refunds for delays or cancellations. Airplanes.

Making matters worse for customers: Southwest has a policy of not exchanging tickets with other airlines, so the company can’t rebook passengers on other flights, Mr. Hartvelt said. The failure could force the airline to run deeper discounts or more promotions to frustrate customers, he said.

Although airports with a large Southwest presence were hit hard, no single region or airport bore the brunt of the cancellations. Those airports include Denver International, Chicago Midway, Harry Reid International in Las Vegas and Sacramento International.

It’s been almost a week since the winter storm started wreaking havoc on millions of travelers. The number of canceled flights started to rise last Thursday, with airlines grounding more than 2,600 flights. The next day, nearly 6,000, or a quarter of all US 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 schedule on Christmas Day.

Derrick Bryson Taylor, Daniel Victor, Shawn Hubler, Mark Walker And Steve Lohr Contributed report.

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