Southwest Airlines plans to cancel more flights in Denver as the company struggles to recover from meltdown

· Dec. 27, 2022, 5:11 pm
A traveler searches for bags in a sea of luggage at the Southwest Airlines baggage claim area on Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022, at Denver International Airport.

Southwest Airlines canceled more than 300 flights out of Denver on Tuesday and plans to continue slashing its schedule nationwide over the next several days as it works to recover from a meltdown of its scheduling technology triggered by Winter Storm Elliott.

The carrier will operate roughly one-third of its routes “for the next several days,” according to a company statement posted online. The reduction will allow Southwest to reposition crews and planes scattered across the country.

“We recognize falling short and sincerely apologize,” the company said. “This safety-first work is intentional, ongoing, and necessary to return to normal reliability, one that minimizes last-minute inconveniences.”

At least 290 departing Southwest flights out of Denver International Airport have already been canceled for Wednesday per the reduced schedule, according to the flight tracking site FlightAware. A spokesman for the company confirmed the disruptions could last through Thursday. 

The mid-week cancellations came after an already rough period of travel chaos in the wake of a pre-Christmas winter storm, which saw thousands of scrapped flights over the busy holiday weekend. Other major airlines also canceled flights, but have since recovered their operations. 

20221227-DIA-SOUTHWEST-MELTDOWNHart Van Denburg/CPR News
Michelle Gardner, at left, checks her Southwest Airlines flight status on Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022, at Denver International Airport.

Lafayette resident Carly Marie Sargent-Knudson found out their flight to New York had been canceled Monday after arriving at DIA with their partner and 3-year-old child. They waited through three hours of delays at the flight’s departing gate. 

“The words they used were that their flight attendants were ‘M.I.A.,’” Sargent-Knudson said. 

A call to the airline’s customer service line went unanswered. A later flight scheduled out of their same gate to Phoenix was also canceled due to a lack of crew. 

“That’s when we realized that this seemed like a system-wide failure,” Sargent-Knudson said. 

Other passengers at the gate complained about similar confusion. A mother and daughter they met had been stuck at DIA for days, running out of money and clothes. Neither spoke English.

“She broke down sobbing,” Sargent-Knudson said. “That will be burned in my memory.” 

The 37-year-old, along with hundreds of other passengers, have since canceled their holiday plans, unable to find another affordable flight in time. Baggage claim has become another major issue in and of itself for many. 

20221227-DIA-SOUTHWEST-MELTDOWNHart Van Denburg/CPR News
Travelers formed long lines at the Southwest Airlines check in area on Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022, at Denver International Airport.

Thousands of Southwest passengers have been stranded at airports, including Denver 

Many have been unable to access customer service options or retrieve their checked luggage. Ticket prices on competing airlines have also skyrocketed due to high demand. 

On Monday evening, the United States Department of Transportation called Southwest’s rate of cancellations and handling of the situation “unacceptable.” It announced an examination into whether the situation was controllable and if the company is complying with its customer service plans.

“Southwest, as all airlines, is obligated to provide a cash refund for passengers whose flights were canceled and decided not to travel,” the department said in an emailed statement. “The Department will take action to hold Southwest accountable if it fails to fulfill its obligations.”

A spokesman for Southwest said the company was offering rebookings and refunds to impacted customers online. Customers who incurred lodging and meal expenses as a result of their cancellation are also able to submit receipts for “reasonable requests” for reimbursement. 

20221227-DIA-SOUTHWEST-MELTDOWNHart Van Denburg/CPR News
Surrounded by a sea of luggage, a Southwest Airlines employee answers questions from customers about the status of their checked bags on Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022, at Denver International Airport.

The airline’s disruptions intensified after Christmas despite improving weather in Colorado and across the country. Southwest canceled or delayed more than 500 Denver flights on Monday while other airlines reported far fewer. 

Company leadership and employees blamed a domino effect of issues stemming from the winter storm. Ground crews in Denver have seen high numbers of staff calling out sick over the past week and fuel supplier delivery delays, said Randy Barnes, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 555, which represents ramp and cargo agents at Denver International Airport. 

“If they can't fuel the aircraft, the aircraft can't fly,” Barnes said. “What we're seeing is the system has to reset, and hopefully that won’t take too long.” 

Southwest said its flight and crew scheduling systems became overwhelmed due to the large number of flight delays, making it difficult to staff scheduled flights properly. And the airline’s lack of a central hub spreads planes across the country, making it more difficult to recover from large disruptions, historically. 

The airline’s Twitter and other social media accounts have been flooded with customer complaints in recent days. Customers in Denver complained about long wait times at service counters with little information from the company about alternative routes or refunds. 

20221227-DIA-SOUTHWEST-MELTDOWNHart Van Denburg/CPR News
Michelle Gardner, at left, checks her Southwest Airlines flight status on Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022, at Denver International Airport. Like thousands of other Southwest travelers, the Rocky Ford resident learned that although she had checked her bag, her flight to Belize via Houston had been canceled, and now she was stuck in an hour-long line trying to figure out how and when she would get her bag back.

Over the past few days, Denver’s claim area has become a sea of lost Southwest luggage. 

Passengers waited for hours in lines Tuesday at the airport to file a claim with customer service agents. 

The airline told customers that recovery will likely take days to work out and directed people to file claims online. One Southwest worker addressed a line of people waiting Tuesday en masse. 

"If your flight was canceled and your final destination is not Denver, (your bag) will not be here,” the worker shouted. “Go home please.”

Broomfield resident Julia Seymour had her flight canceled Monday. She returned to the airport the next day to recover her belongings, waiting in line for more than an hour to file a lost bag claim. 

20221227-DIA-SOUTHWEST-MELTDOWNHart Van Denburg/CPR News
A traveler searches for bags in a sea of luggage at the Southwest Airlines baggage claim area on Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022, at Denver International Airport.

“I’m back now on … What day is it? … Standing in line to fill out the form for my bags because I have tried calling and left voicemails to no avail so far,” she said. 

Many crew members have also been scattered across the country. The union representing Southwest flight attendants, TWU Local 556,  said Tuesday that communication from leadership remained poor and called for an update to the company's "outdated" scheduling systems. 

“Flight attendants are still stranded away from home,” the union said in a statement posted on Facebook. “We are into another day where Southwest Airlines operational chaos has resulted in thousands of canceled flights.” 

The disruption comes amid a period of expansion of the airline in Denver. With an addition of more than a dozen brand new gates in Concourse C earlier this year, the city became the company’s largest base, with hundreds of flights departing each day. 

Passenger volume overall at the airport has been on a steady increase in recent years, leading to capacity issues around security as construction updates drag on. More than 58 million people traveled through the airport in 2021. 

CPR's Caitlyn Kim and Hart Van Denburg contributed to this report. 

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