My brother and his wife made what they thought was going to be a short trip to town for Christmas. However, when they went to Hobby Airport to try to return to Denver last Monday, they found themselves to be just two of thousands of victims of the Great Southwest Airlines Meltdown of 2022:
A massive storm has blanketed much of the U.S. with snow, slowing air travel during a peak season and causing tens of thousands of flight cancellations. The holiday meltdown at Southwest Airlines, however, has far eclipsed its competitors.
By Wednesday afternoon, the company had canceled more than 2,500 flights planned for the day, which amounted to 62% of the day's total, according to the flight tracking website FlightAware.
By contrast, as of Wednesday afternoon, United Airlines had canceled just 11 flights scheduled for the day; while American Airlines had canceled 23, FlightAware said. Each figure accounted for less than 1% of the respective company's total flights.
In an interview with ABC News' Byron Pitts, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg on Tuesday described the wave of flight cancellations at Southwest Airlines as a "shocking and unacceptable level of disruption." Meanwhile Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, said the problems at Southwest Airlines "go beyond weather."
While the snowstorm grounded flights in and out of key airports in Southwest's network, the historic scale of cancellations stems from the company's uniquely complex flight coordination model and its antiquated internal scheduling systems, according to flight experts, Southwest Airlines officials and union leaders.
Southwest's meltdown was the result of multiple factors, including bad weather, high holiday travel volumes, the carrier's unique point-to-point route network (as opposed to the hub-and-spoke system of most other carriers) and, most notably, an antiquated dispatching system:
In addition to its complicated model for assigning flights, Southwest Airlines also suffers from an antiquated internal system used for managing and staffing those trips, company officials, union leaders and experts said.
"They've had IT-related issues in terms of tracking their crews and scheduling," said [industry observer Ross] Feinstein, formerly of American Airlines. "Issues with what they use to monitor aircraft locations, crew, flight attendants, all of the above."
Casey Murray, the president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said in a statement on Tuesday that the technology used internally to oversee staffing and scheduling has faced difficulties stretching back at least a decade.
"We all know that the company has had its head buried in the sand when it comes to its operational processes and IT," Murray said. "We aren't undermanned. We're undermanaged."
A vice president of the same union went into further detail regarding Southwest's stunningly inadequate scheduling platform:
Captain Mike Santoro, vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), told Insider on Tuesday that while the winter storm was a "catalyst" for the disruptions, the company's "outdated" scheduling software created the snowball.
He explained the system tracks the company's pilots and flight attendants' whereabouts, but it got so overloaded that it could not keep up.
"When we get out of position, it's a tough task for our schedulers to put it back together, and right now they're having to do it by hand," he explained. "The problem is the software just doesn't keep track of us."
For example, he explained one flight had two pilots and three flight attendants assigned to a flight but needed one more flight attendant for the plane to legally fly.
There were several deadheading flight attendants onboard, meaning they were being flown to another city for an assignment but were "ready, willing, and able to work" that flight as well.
But, because the system didn't know they were on that aircraft and the flight attendants couldn't get in contact with crew scheduling, the company canceled the flight when it didn't need to.
"Even though we had a crew available, [scheduling] had no idea those flight attendants were in the back of the airplane."
It turns out that even though they were warned about the need to upgrade critical corporate infrastructure, Southwest's C-suite has been more focused in making its investors rich through dividends and stock buybacks. The resulting situation, which Southwest staff predicted in internal memos, has created catastrophic conditions for tens of thousands of travelers, who have scrambled to complete their trip by any means available. Many travelers don't even know where their luggage is. Hotels around Hobby Airport, which is dominated by Southwest, bore the effects of the chaos:
Many passengers found new routes with different airlines through George Bush Intercontinental airport, others caught buses, booked rental cars or had family members drive long distance to pick them up, said Britney Moreno, front desk manager at Courtyard by Marriott Houston Hobby Airport, which has seen a wave of Southwest passengers.
“I’ve had people drive to Waco or New Mexico; they’re getting rental cars and leaving but even then, there’s a wait time because there aren’t many rental places with availability,” Moreno said.
The 150-room Courtyard hotel hit about 50 percent occupancy on Monday night, when they hotel had been planning for much lower occupancy, she said.
“We were actually hoping it would be very slow since it was a holiday, but the whole weather situation happened and from there it got busy,” Moreno said. By late Tuesday afternoon, much of the initial rush was dissipating as customers rearranged their plans, she added.
Other hotels were planning for a slow weekend too. Miya Ball, front officer manager at Hilton Garden Inn Houston Hobby Airport, said the 136-room hotel had expected to achieve about 30 percent occupancy over the weekend. Instead, its occupancy climbed to 90 percent Monday night as disheveled passengers and flight attendants filled the hotel.
“It’s bringing in that extra revenue we weren’t expecting, but we’ve had a lot of guests coming in who are very frustrated,” Ball said. “It’s been very chaotic; however we have the availably to help.”
Southwest even resorted to putting passengers on buses to reach their final destinations, thus defeating the purpose of air travel entirely:
This is all happening as ABC13 saw Southwest passengers arriving to Hobby not by plane, but by bus. Overnight, one bus drove 24 hours from La Guardia Airport in New York and arrived at Hobby Airport.
"It was so hard and in spite of it, Southwest looked out for us to get a bus to come here," one of the passengers onboard the bus said.
Another bus carrying 52 passengers drove 16 hours from Denver and arrived at about 5 a.m. Wednesday.
"We took bathroom breaks, got food, did what we could to make them comfortable," Eric Miller, who drove 21 hours from Denver, said.
My brother and his wife were relatively lucky; they simply had to return to my parents' house to spend an extra couple of days there, and were able to fly back to Denver today via United Airlines out of Bush Intercontinental. The same can't be said for so many other people who are still trying to find a way to get home.
Southwest founder Herb Kelleher must be spinning in his grave right now.