Thousands of flights, including those out of and into the Orange County airports in Florida and California that serve Walt Disney World and Disneyland, are getting cancelled. This comes as Southwest Airlines is experiencing a meltdown due to a mixture of winter weather and other issues, leaving travelers stranded coast to coast.
Part of this news is unsurprising, and could have been written about any airport in the country. Over 17,000 flights throughout the United States were cancelled between last Wednesday and Christmas, according to flight-tracking platform FlightAware. This was mainly due to severe winter weather across much of the United States, which brought snow, ice, high winds and bitter cold around the country, grounding flights from coast to coast.
Given the scale and scope of the winter weather–and the fact that many of you are likely living through it–flight delays and cancellations are to be expected. In addition to extreme weather, there have been staffing shortages–also not a huge shock given that it’s one of the peak seasonal sickness times. The interesting and unfortunate element of this story is Southwest’s systemic collapse.
Southwest Airlines canceled another 2,500 flights on December 27, 2022 and warned that mass disruptions will continue throughout the week, a move that comes as other airlines are starting to stabilize and improve operations following a tough few days in the lead-up to Christmas.
By contrast, Southwest has stood out for its ongoing–and worsening–disruptions. On Monday, Southwest cancelled 70% of its schedule and said it plans to fly about only one-third of its schedule “for the next several days” in an effort to recover its collapsing operations. Meanwhile on Monday, Delta Airlines canceled 9% of its domestic flights, United dropped 5%, and American cut less than 1% of its flights. To the extent of these legacy carrier cancellations, most were due to an airport closure in Buffalo, New York due to a winter storm.
Southwest, on the other hand, is preemptively slashing its schedule in an attempt to “reset” its operations, getting planes and crews to where they’re needed. This approach has left passengers stranded at airports for multiple days during one of the busiest travel periods of the year.
It’s also one of the worst possible times from a consumer perspective. Never mind being stranded somewhere for New Year’s Eve, although that certainly is not ideal. Those stuck in Central Florida or Southern California (or almost anywhere, for that matter) cannot simply book a cheap hotel room while waiting for their flight to be rescheduled. Hotel occupancy is incredibly high right now, and prices are at peak season highs. Those needing to extend a stay at Walt Disney World or Disneyland might have no such luck in doing so–or might be met with astronomical nightly rates.
Reports and video from on the ground at Orlando International Airport (MCO) paint a grim picture. Lengthy lines (a colossal understatement) for customer service, packed seating areas with passengers camped out for the long haul, and overwhelmed agents.
Fox 35 Orlando‘s Amy Kaufeldt reported that Southwest Airlines announced over the PA system at MCO that if you have a cancelled flight, they won’t be able to get you out until New Year’s Eve at the earliest. It’s currently Tuesday–Saturday is several days away.
None of this is hyperbole, relevant only to a small minority of travelers who have the misfortune of their flights being cancelled. Orlando is an operating base for Southwest, and it’s far and away the largest carrier at MCO by volume. Intuitively, this makes sense–Southwest is one of the most beloved airlines among families, and MCO is the gateway to Walt Disney World.
Thus far on Tuesday, over 70% of Southwest’s flights into and out of MCO have been cancelled. (The day is still young.) There is no apparent pattern to the cities with flights being cancelled–they’re fairly evenly distributed throughout the country.
If it’s possible, the situation is somehow worse in Southern California. KTLA is reporting that Southwest has canceled all departing flights from Los Angeles area airports until December 31, 2022. This includes Los Angeles International (LAX), Hollywood Burbank (BUR), Ontario (ONT), Long Beach (LGB), and the John Wayne Airport (SNA). The situation is similar in San Diego.
Per KTLA, it’s unclear if arriving Southern California flights were also affected. However, we have (had) family flying into SNA from Indianapolis, and they’re flight from Dallas was cancelled, with no options to rebook until January 1, 2023. If that’s the case for Southwest’s main hub to LAX (perhaps the best-case pairing of airports for availability), it’s hard to imagine that the situation is much better for other routes.
As with MCO, Southwest is far and away the largest carrier at SNA, the other Orange County’s airport that serves as the gateway to Disneyland. Given the above, many travelers have reportedly opted to rent cars and attempt driving home–or to other airports outside of Southern California.
Southwest has a warning on its website indicating that its phone system is very busy due to high demand and the airline is experiencing “irregular operations.” Customers are advised to use the self-service tools to cancel or rebook, but from what we’ve seen firsthand and heard, those are not always working.
Southwest has also advised that a system-wide waiver on changes and cancellations is in place through January 2, 2023. Southwest is also requesting that those who don’t have travel plans in the next 72 hours not call at this time. According to the airline, this is due to Winter Storm Elliott. However, blaming the weather doesn’t really pass the smell test at this point. When American Airlines (hardly an exemplar of the aviation industry) is doing just fine on that front, you know things are uniquely bad for Southwest.
According to multiple reports from employees on social media, the Southwest Airlines meltdown is largely being driven by antiquated crew scheduling software. The system assumes the location of each crew member based on an automated flow, rather than actually working with real-time location data. In the event of a flight disruption, crew members call Southwest’s scheduling phone line and they make manual adjustments.
Due to the winter weather, Southwest has lost track of almost every flight crew member. The only way to solve this is for each to individually call scheduling to update their real-time location. As with the customer service phone lines, the scheduling line is swamped, with crew members on hold for countless hours—or unable to get through, period—attempting to update their location.
While we obviously cannot independently corroborate this, there have been several reports from flight attendants and pilots on the Southwest and aviation subreddits, as well as Twitter. This would certainly explain why Southwest is still cancelling flights, as well as why the problem has gotten worse after the winter weather, and why the “reset” is needed.
Southwest’s operational collapse is already drawing scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Transportation as other airlines have recovered from severe winter weather. “USDOT 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,” the department said in a statement.
“As more information becomes available, the department will closely examine whether cancellations were controllable and whether Southwest is complying with its customer service plan, as well as all other pertinent DOT rules.”
While some might be apprehensive about government involvement, it is worth noting that many other countries offer greater consumer protections for travelers. It’s hardly a new or novel idea. Almost across the board, our experiences with international carriers–even some budget ones–have been better than domestic carriers. Delta is far and away our favorite U.S. airline, but it’s mediocre by international standards.
Southwest also released the following statement:
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. These operational conditions 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. 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 Southwest.com/traveldisruption.
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.
This statement talks a good game, but rings hollow. For one thing, it emphasizes safety several times, and it’s unclear how that’s really relevant at this point. Are they suggesting that it’s unsafe to fly in the aftermath of the winter storm? Should we be thanking Southwest that they aren’t following the lead of Delta, United, and American in not cancelling their flights?! If anything, I would think the greater risk this time of year is being crammed into an airport with other travelers, some of whom are almost certainly sick.
Second, this and Southwest’s consumer-facing website still put most of the blame on winter weather, which is likely a strategy to avoid paying for the hotels and meals of stranded travelers. Again, other carriers are back to normal at this point–it’s not like there are snow clouds parked over Southwest’s planes.
This is not the first or even second time in the last year-plus that Southwest has experienced issues that were disproportionate to other airlines. In Fall 2021, the airline had a 4-day meltdown that caused in significant delays and cancellations, and resulted in a $75 million revenue hit. Another around this same time last year also left Southwest scrambling to recover operations even as other airlines had stabilized.
On other prior occasions, Southwest initially blamed the weather before shifting to another formidable foe: technology. Its computer, phone, and aging resource management systems have all received their share of the blame. This might lead one to wonder: why hasn’t this been fixed if it’s a known problem?
If the problem is in the midst of being addressed, why not use stopgap measures to build extra slack into the system? At the very least, why not make interline and codeshare agreements with other carriers to mitigate the risk of future meltdowns?
Ultimately, we have nothing against Southwest and still use the airline from time to time when it has significantly cheaper airfare than Delta or United (our preferred domestic carriers). With that said, I would no longer fly Southwest during any near-peak travel time, and certainly not around major holidays like Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Thanksgiving, etc. They have demonstrated time and time again a willingness to push their system to its breaking point, and an unwillingness to take measures to mitigate the fallout from such instances.
When there’s bandwidth in the system and operations are normal, Southwest is a good airline. It’s totally understandable why so many families love it. Conversely, when it’s bad, it’s really bad. These are not problems that travelers, especially knowledgeable ones, flying with the legacy carriers have (see What to Do If Your Flight is Cancelled? for our recovery advice). To be sure, we’ve had issues over the years with Delta and United, but have seldom been stranded one night–usually, we are rebooked within a matter of hours on another airline when worst comes to worst.
One piece of advice we will offer here if you’re impacted by the Southwest meltdown is to be polite to the company’s employees. The gate agent or customer service rep with whom you’re speaking almost certainly did not make the decision to cancel flights, nor do they have any control over the outdated technology the company uses. Many of these employees have been pushed to their breaking point, and being rude only makes the situation worse. On a more basic level, it’s always best to err on the side of courtesy and compassion, even if the circumstances are utterly maddening.
That’s not to say the Southwest’s total collapse during peak holiday travel is acceptable. It absolutely is not. This should not have happened once, let alone multiple times in the last year-plus. I’m sure many people who will defend Southwest with their positive experiences, and the company’s track record is still strong most of the time. However, I’m also sure if you polled only those stuck at MCO or SNA today–people who won’t be able to get home until several days from now at the earliest–there would be a high percentage who will never fly Southwest again. To each their own, but this type of thing is happening with Southwest far too often for my liking. They aren’t there yet, but they are close to entering Frontier or Spirit territory as another airline we won’t fly.
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Are you impacted by Southwest’s meltdown? Any reports ‘on the ground’ at MCO, SNA, or other airports to share? Have you experienced any flight cancellations or noteworthy delays while traveling during the holiday season or when there’s winter weather? What’s your strategy to reduce the likelihood of travel disruptions? Any other tips or anecdotal advice/experiences for addressing and overcoming cancellations that might arise? Do you agree or disagree with our advice? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!