The federal Transportation Department said late Monday it would examine the large number of Southwest Airlines cancelled and delayed flights in recent days to determine if they were in the airline’s control, calling them “unacceptable.”
Southwest canceled 2,886 flights on Monday, or 70% of scheduled flights, after cancelling 48% on Sunday, according to flight tracking website FlightAware. It has also already canceled 60%, or more than 2,400, of its planned Tuesday flights.
“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.
It said it would “closely examine whether cancellations were controllable and whether Southwest is complying with its customer service plan as well as all other pertinent DOT rules.”
Southwest delayed 48% of flights on Sunday and 16% on Monday.
Southwest declined to comment late on Monday on the USDOT statement but pointed to a statement it issued earlier offering “heartfelt apologies” and said “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.”
The airline added it was working “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.”
Other major U.S. airlines suffered significant cancellations in recent days but not nearly at as high rates as Southwest and they have now largely recovered.
USDOT on Monday pointed to Southwest Airlines customer service plan, which notes the airline will provide meal or hotel vouchers for extended delays that are due to issues within the airline’s control but not for unforeseen issues like weather.
In August, major U.S. airlines including Southwest told USDOT they would commit to provide meals for customers delayed by three hours and hotel rooms for stranded passengers if prompted by issues under the airlines’ control.
Many airlines have previously offered vouchers or hotel rooms for delays they caused but did not spell out all commitments in customer service plans.
Earlier Monday, Southwest Airlines apologized for operational challenges causing long delays at San Diego International Airport and other airports nationwide due to an intense winter storm, promising it is working to recover.
Horror stories were being shared on social media, with one tweet about San Diego International Airport saying: “People are told find their bags in these piles. Several are in tears.”
There were 191 canceled flights at San Diego’s airport in the last 24 hours including Southwest and all other airlines, according to the tracking website FlightAware.
“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,” Southwest said in a news release Monday.
“We are working with safety at the forefront to urgently address wide-scale disruption by re-balancing the airline and repositioning crews and our fleet, ultimately to best serve all who plan to travel with us. And our heartfelt apologies for this are just beginning.”
Southwest had canceled more than 2,850 flights as of Monday evening, or about 70% of all its scheduled total, FlightAware reported.
The airline said it was fully staffed late last week and prepared for the approaching Christmas weekend when severe weather swept across the continent.
“This 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,” Southwest said. “This safety-first work is intentional, ongoing, and necessary to return to normal reliability, one that minimizes last-minute inconveniences.”
Southwest admitted anticipating “additional challenges with an already reduced level of flights as we approach the coming New Year’s holiday travel period, and we are working to reach out to customers whose travel plans will change with specific information and their available options.”
Southwest added its employees and crews “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 are known. On the other side of this, we will work to make things right for those we have let down, including our employees.”
More than 3,800 U.S. airline flights were canceled Monday, including 2,800 operated by Southwest, or nearly 70% of the carrier’s total scheduled for the day, according to FlightAware.
Delays were reported for more than 7,100 U.S. flight departures and arrivals overall, with several hundred by Southwest.
The Dallas-based airline, one of the world’s largest low-cost carriers, said it anticipated the disruptions would continue in the days heading into the New Year holiday travel period at the end of the this week.
Commercial airline traffic has been upended since last week as an Arctic blast coupled with a massive winter storm dubbed Elliott took shape over the Midwest and swept over much of the United States in the lead-up to the Christmas holiday weekend.
The resulting surge in cancellations and delays, coupled with long lines and missing luggage at airports, spoiled wintertime vacation plans for countless U.S. airline customers during one of the busiest travel periods of the year.
Kyle Goeke, 29, said he would be stuck in Seattle for days after Alaska Airlines canceled his flight, scheduled for early Monday, from Seattle to Missoula, Montana.
He had already traveled from Washington, D.C., to Seattle late on Sunday and said he hadn’t slept at all overnight, forced instead to make lodging arrangements in Seattle.
“Luckily, I have a friend here in this city to help me out, many others are just left by themselves,” he told Reuters.
Many would-be passengers took to social media to express frustration and to try to get a response from airlines.
David Sharp said on Twitter his Southwest Airlines flight from Denver to St. Louis was canceled and the next flight was not available for another two days. He said he would rent a car and drive to his destination.
Southwest Airlines said on Monday it was facing a large number of travel inquiries from customers and was doing its best to get its network back to normal.
Voice actress Grey DeLisle tweeted to Southwest Airlines: “Flight 1824 from Nashville to Burbank was canceled due to Elliot and we haven’t received any rebooking! The kids’ daddy has already missed Christmas now and his luggage is lost with medication in it! Customer Service line busy. Help!”
“My brothers Southwest Airlines flight out of Philly back to El Paso was canceled today and the best they could do was out of Baltimore on Tuesday morning! Nothing anyone could do but so much travel insanity,” wrote another Twitter user named Alex Gervasi.
Some luggage was left unclaimed at William P. Hobby Airport in Houston for two days, while many passengers arrived unable to locate their bags, local media reported.
Madeline Howard said on Twitter she was told by Southwest that her luggage was flying to a different airport despite her flight having been canceled.
Updated at 7:42 p.m. Dec. 26, 2022
City News Service and Reuters contributed to this article.