It hasn’t been the most wonderful time of the year for the thousands of Americans who were stranded at airports following the nearly continent-wide storm surrounding Christmas. But the massive cancellations were not just a natural phenomenon: Half of all canceled flights worldwide on Monday were from just one carrier, Southwest Airlines. Their damage was substantial: On the night of December 26, one of the busiest travel days of the year, Southwest canceled 2,877 flights, around 70 percent of all its flights, according to the industry tracker FlightAware. For comparison, the next closest airline, Delta, canceled just 265 on a night when weather conditions were improving.
As other airlines weathered the storm, Southwest is still struggling to return to normal operations, accounting for nearly all of the canceled flights in the U.S. On Wednesday, 2,500 flights, or 62 percent of its scheduled flights for the day, were canceled, according to FlightAware. Over the next few days, the airline will also shrink its schedule to roughly a third of its regular number of flights to get back on track.
The main reason that their service collapsed and other companies held on was that Southwest runs what is called a “point-to-point” system, offering more direct flights to smaller destinations without returning to a home base between flights. After the pandemic and its huge shock to demand and labor in the aviation industry, many other airlines switched to the hub-and-spoke model: Airlines route the bulk of their traffic through major cities like Houston or Atlanta, then link out to smaller, final destinations. When demand is normal, the weather is good, and airlines are fully staffed, the point-to-point model is competitive because people love direct flights. But when a polar vortex hits the country on one of the biggest travel weeks of the year — amid ongoing staffing shortages — point-to-point becomes a huge mess.
While hub-and-spoke carriers were able to communicate easily with centrally located crews and cancel individual routes in order to control the damage from the storm, Southwest got snowed in. Crews were scattered at airports throughout its map of destinations; these teams use an antiquated phone system to get their flight assignments and could only wait so long for instructions without running into limits on how long they could go without a significant break — a problem that industry unions have been pointing out for years. “The catalyst was the big storm,” Michael Santoro, the vice-president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, told the Los Angeles Times. “But our internal software can’t handle massive cancellations. The company hasn’t invested the money into scheduling infrastructure to support the network they have developed.”
For many Southwest flights, it was not the weather on Monday that caused the sweeping cancellations as much as the fact that the weather the previous week had dispersed its crews all across the country. Planes that may have been ready to go couldn’t find a full team, resulting in canceled flights; because the point-to-point system is dependent on previous flights getting in on time, the canceled flights multiplied until the system reached the brink of collapse.
Southwest also did a really bad job communicating its problems to the many people waiting around after the holiday in crammed airport lounges. Families were stranded throughout the country as airport staffers pulled 16-hour shifts trying to accommodate would-be travelers, who waited for hours only to be told that their flights would be canceled and they would need to track down their checked baggage.
On Tuesday night, Southwest CEO Bob Jordan issued a video statement apologizing to customers about the canceled flights and the “giant puzzle” that still needs solving to get the company back to square one. “Our plan for the next few days is to fly a reduced schedule and reposition our people and planes,” he said. But after service is restored, the company may have to answer to regulators for its holiday failures: On Monday, the Department of Transportation announced it will look into the causes of the mass cancellations to determine if they were “controllable.”