Nearly five days after a historic winter storm halted air travel and hit the Midwest, little has changed in Chicago’s Midway Airport Southwest Terminal as travelers from the Southwest continue to search for their missing luggage in a sea of bags, or hope to board a flight that has probably been cancelled.
“It’s terrible,” a Southwest traveler told NBC 5’s Midway. “There’s no communication. We’ve been here over three hours this morning, no communication at all.
And while Midway passengers this week may receive further in-person customer service assistance from O’Hare staff who have been dispatched to the airport, the issues are expected to persist for “several days”.
Travelers from Chicago remain stranded in the Southwest to ‘operate a reduced schedule’ for ‘several days’
In a statement from Southwest on Monday, the airline said it was severe weather that “forced daily changes to our flight schedule at a volume and scale that still has the tools our crews use to restore airline operating at full capacity”, and that the airline has made the decision to “continue to operate a reduced schedule by flying approximately one third of our schedule for the next few days”.
A video update posted to Southwest Airline’s website Tuesday by CEO Bob Jordan echoed that sentiment, saying “cities with large numbers of scheduled flights simultaneously froze as record-breaking freezing cold posed challenges to all airlines”.
“Our network is very complex and the operation of the airline relies on all the elements, especially the planes and the crews staying in motion to where they need to go,” Jordan said. “The tools we use to recover from disruptions serve us well, 99% of the time; but it is clear that we need to double down on our already existing plans to upgrade systems in these extreme circumstances so that we never face another what’s going on right now.”
Jordan concluded his post by saying the airline is “optimistic to be back on track before next week.”
However, according to travel expert Kurt Ebenhoch, it wasn’t the storm that caused the disruption.
“If it was just a purely weather issue, all carriers would have the same difficulties,” Ebenhock told NBC 5 in an interview.
Southwest canceled 70% on Monday and more than 60% on Tuesday. Alternatively, American, United, Delta and JetBlue recorded cancellation rates between 0 and 2% on Tuesday.
Overall, of the 2,890 U.S. flight cancellations early Tuesday, 2,522 were canceled by Southwest.
What Southwest Employees Are Saying
It’s not just Southwest passengers who are stranded.
According to a statement from TWU Local 556, Southwest Airlines Flight Attendant Union of more than 18,000 members, “thousands” of crew members are also stranded across the country, “some forced to sleep on cots at airports , some in hotels with no electricity or water , and far too many working long hours far beyond acceptable working days, and more.”
“We know the demands of holiday travel,” the union statement continued. “We know about winter storms…We know about stepping in and working long hours when called upon; we’re flight attendants. But at this point, the many years of failure to management, despite numerous union’ requests for upgrades, left flight attendants tired, stranded, hungry and cold. »
According to Captain Michael Santoro, vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilot Association, although inclement weather was the catalyst, it was a “largely outdated” IT infrastructure and scheduling system that is different from other carriers that led to the collapse.
“We’re running a point-to-point network that can put our crews in the wrong place, with no planes, mismatched. Our software can’t keep track of that,” Santoro said Tuesday, adding that the union raises the issue every year.
“They never update it. They never invest the money and the resources that they need. So we continue to have these issues,” Santoro said.
Captain Casey Murray, president of SWAPA, on Tuesday called the situation “shameful”, “catastrophic” and “a failure on every level”.
What federal agencies do
The travel chaos caught the attention of the United States Department of Transportation, which called the rate of canceled flights “disproportionate and unacceptable”.
“USDOT is concerned about Southwest Airlines’ disproportionate and unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays, as well as the failure to properly support customers experiencing cancellations or delays,” a spokesperson said Monday. “As more information becomes available, the department will closely review whether the cancellations were controllable and whether Southwest is complying with its customer service plan, as well as all other relevant DOT rules.”
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and the Department of Transportation have promised to “hold Southwest accountable” if they fail to deliver on their promises to consumers.
“Southwest Airlines’ rate of cancellations and delays is unacceptable and significantly higher than other US carriers,” the USDOT said Tuesday. the commitments it has made to passengers, including providing meal vouchers, refunds and hotel accommodations for those who experience significant delays or cancellations as a result of Southwest’s decisions and actions . Southwest, like all airlines, is also required to provide cash refunds to passengers whose flights have been canceled and who have decided not to travel.”
Additionally, Illinois Governor JB Pritzker said he has been in contact with federal officials about the cancellation of thousands of Southwest Airlines flights in recent days, demanding that the airline be held accountable for a series of cascading problems that have left travelers stranded across the country. .
“I follow closely the challenges consumers face regarding their canceled flights to the southwest,” Pritzker said. “I spoke with Secretary Buttigieg to express the frustration of thousands of Illinoisans who have been stranded and missed quality time with family or had to cancel work because they couldn’t return home. “
What to expect if you fly southwest this week
For those holding out hope, it doesn’t look like things will get better anytime soon.
Southwest said it was planning “additional changes with an already reduced level of flights heading into the next New Years holiday travel period.”
“As we continue to work to recover our operations, we have made the decision to continue to operate a reduced schedule by flying approximately one-third of our schedule for the next few days,” the statement read.
He goes on to say that they are “working to reach customers whose travel plans will change”.
“On the other hand, we will work to make things right for those we have left behind, including our employees,” the statement concluded. “We recognize that we have failed and we sincerely apologize.”
And while the Southwest Airlines CEO says he’s “optimistic to be back on track by next week,” some passengers told NBC 5 that Southwest advised them to cancel or rebook if they were leaving before the New Year – and flight experts agree.
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“It’s a safe assumption that if you’re departing with Southwest in the next few days, but probably within the next week, your flight is going to be canceled,” Kyle Potter said with Thrifty Traveler.
“The problem here is that the ball is in Southwest’s court,” Potter continued. “The reality is that American travelers have surprisingly few rights.”
According to Southwest Airlines’ website, “Customers with Southwest reservations from Sunday, December 25 through Monday, January 2 may rebook in the original class of service or travel on hold (within 14 days of their date initial travel between home city-pairs and in accordance with our accommodation procedures) without paying any additional charges.”