Thousands of canceled flights upend travel plans across US
By Derrick Bryson Taylor and Daniel Victor
Thousands of stranded holiday travelers were no closer to home Tuesday, as the aftermath of a deadly winter storm that grounded flights and throttled plans over the holiday weekend continued to play out at airline counters across the country.
Disruptions were likely to continue throughout the week at airports, where canceled flights caused weary homebound travelers to sleep on floors and wait hours in line for customer service.
By midmorning Eastern time Tuesday, nearly 2,900 U.S. flights were canceled and more than 1,600 others delayed, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking service. Most of the cancellations — more than 2,500 of them — came from Southwest Airlines, which had already called off more than 60% of its flights for the day.
Tuesday’s unfolding chaos followed similar scenes Monday, when more than 4,000 U.S. flights — most also operated by Southwest — were canceled and more than 8,500 others delayed, FlightAware reported.
Southwest Airlines said in a statement Monday that the travel disruptions were “unacceptable” and that its network was behind because of the winter storm that slammed parts of the country with heavy snow, ice and strong winds much of last week.
“Our heartfelt apologies for this are just beginning,” the company said, adding that it was working to address the disruptions by “rebalancing the airline and repositioning” crews.
By late Monday and into Tuesday morning, Southwest was in damage-control mode, responding to angry and frustrated customers on Twitter. The airline repeatedly apologized for the cancellations and offered assistance through direct messages, which did not appease everyone.
“Our biggest issue at this time is getting our crews and our aircraft in the right places,” Chris Perry, a spokesperson for Southwest, said in an email. A statement on the airline’s website called the cancellations “unacceptable.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation said in a statement Monday that it would look into the Southwest issue, adding that it was concerned by the airline’s “unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays” and reports of poor customer service.
Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst, said in an email that Southwest’s structure made it “uniquely vulnerable to weather problems, especially one as geographically extensive and as intensive as this storm has been.”
“I don’t recall seeing an airline experience such a massive operational problem as we are currently seeing at Southwest,” he said.
Most airlines operate on a “hub/spoke” basis, with planes returning back to a hub airport after flying out to other cities, but Southwest planes tend to make multiple stops across the country, he said.
Hub/spoke airlines can shut down specific routes when bad weather hits, resuming operations when conditions improve, but Southwest can’t do that as easily without disrupting multiple flights, he said.
David Vernon, another airline analyst at financial firm Sanford C. Bernstein, the system enables higher use of planes during normal times but can cause cascading negative effects when things go wrong.
Making matters worse for customers: Southwest has a policy of not exchanging tickets with other airlines, so the airline could not rebook passengers on other flights, Harteveldt said. The debacle could force the airline to “buy back” frustrated customers with deeper discounts or conduct more promotions, he said.
No single region or airport bore the brunt of the cancellations. On Tuesday morning, more than 155 flights originating at Denver International Airport, or about 17% of its outgoing traffic, were canceled, and more than 115 flights, or about 38%, were canceled out of Chicago Midway International. More than 100 flights were also canceled at Harry Reid International in Las Vegas, and similar numbers were reported for Baltimore-Washington International, Dallas Love Field in Texas and Nashville International in Tennessee.
It has been nearly a week since the winter storm began wreaking havoc for millions of people counting on airlines to get them from point A to B. The number of canceled flight began to rise last Thursday, when airlines called off more than 2,600 of them. The next day, nearly 6,000, or about a quarter of all U.S. flights, were canceled across the country. On Saturday, Christmas Eve, nearly 3,500 flights were canceled, and slightly fewer, at about 3,200, were cut from the schedules on Christmas Day.
The recovery is just beginning in Buffalo, New York, where at least 28 people died and roads remained impassable after the area’s worst winter storm in more than 50 years. A driving ban remained in place as the snow was expected to finally end early Tuesday after accumulations of up to 49 inches. Many streets have not been plowed, and vehicles remained stranded on roads, Gov. Kathy Hochul said Monday.
Most power outages had been restored after affecting more than 1 million customers at the storm’s peak, but thousands remained without power in Maine and New York state early Tuesday, according to poweroutage.us.