Southwest cancellations leave many stuck at BWI

Published 12/27/2022 10:48 a.m. EST, Updated 12/27/2022 6:38 p.m. EST

Southwest Airlines travelers stand in a long line at Baltimore/Washington International Airport after thousands of flights were canceled over the holiday weekend.

For Jim Mackenzie, travel chaos has been unending since Friday.

Multiple canceled flights to his wife’s family in Minneapolis left the 67-year-old stranded in his home in Albany, New York. When he finally got a Southwest Airlines flight to BWI on Monday for his connecting flight to Minneapolis, he realized that his travails had only just begun.

His afternoon flight, along with dozens of others out of Baltimore, had been canceled.

“This place was jam-packed, there were lines zigzagging all the way that way and another line going all the way that way,” said Mackenzie Tuesday morning, from a chair by the Southwest check-in line.

By Monday evening, he had given up on his plan to go to Minneapolis, hoping instead to rent a car to drive to Indiana to visit his daughter. But his bag, he was told, was heading to Minneapolis without him.

He spent the rest of the day waiting in multiple lines and pleading with multiple agents to release his luggage, and spent the night in the airport so he could be there to try again first thing in the morning.

Mackenzie is one of the thousands of people whose travel plans following the Christmas holiday have been disrupted by the massive winter storm that impacted much of the country over the weekend.

Problems at Southwest appeared to snowball after the worst of the storm passed and many of the major airlines had resumed normal operations. The Dallas-based airline cancelled more than 70% of its flights Monday, and more than 60% on Tuesday.

By Tuesday afternoon, 2,602 of the 3,053 cancellations in the U.S. were Southwest flights, according to the tracker FlightAware.

As of 4 p.m. Tuesday, 221 Southwest flights departing or coming into Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport were cancelled and another 84 were delayed, according to the site.

“We would encourage customers to work with their airline before coming to the airport. In other words, attempt to communicate with their airline and rebook either online or by telephone. That saves them the potential wait in line,” said Jonathan Dean, communications director for BWI.

Sign Up for Alerts
Get notified of need-to-know
info from The Banner

Southwest accounted for 69% of all air travel at BWI in September, the most recent month for which data was available, according to the airport.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is examining the rate of cancellations by Southwest Airlines as many travelers are trying to return home after the holiday. The department plans to look into “whether cancellations were controllable and if Southwest is complying with its customer service plan.”

Southwest started issuing updates and changes with flights about a week ago as Winter Storm Elliott settled in.

In an update posted Monday, Southwest said it was fully staffed for the upcoming holiday period but the winter storm affected operations across the country.

“These operational conditions 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,” the airline said.

Southwest will be operating at a reduced capacity with roughly one-third of its scheduled flights for the next several days as the company tries to recover. Customers who have Southwest reservations from Sunday, Dec. 25 through Monday, Jan. 2 are allowed to rebook or travel standby within 14 days of their original date “between the original city-pairs” without paying any additional charge, according to the airline’s website.

Travelers with canceled flights can request a refund on unused tickets, according to the airline’s travel disruption information page.

Kathleen Bangs, a spokesperson for FlightAware and former commercial airline pilot, said bad weather was the “domino that began all of this” for Southwest, though other factors likely contributed to cancellations.

Unlike many other airlines, Southwest uses a point-to-point system, Bangs said, which may have made it especially hard for the airline to deal with bad weather. Many other airlines, Bangs said, operate primarily out of their hub airports — meaning planes usually return to a hub after completing their routes for the day. That makes it easier for those airlines to switch out planes or flight crews if they have to, Bangs said, because their hubs have a large supply of both.

Southwest planes instead may fly into secondary airports and pick up new crews at each stop. That means it may be harder for Southwest to get planes or flight crews where they need to be for flights to take off on time. ”They have airplanes in locations right now, ready to fly all across the country,” Bangs said.

“But they can’t get crews there. Or they can get crews there, but they can’t get flight attendants there,” she added.

Another factor, Bangs said, may be that Southwest typically runs shorter flights and has shorter turnaround times, meaning their planes land and takeoff more times throughout the day, zigzagging to airports across the country.

That may contribute to a large number of Southwest cancellations, because “every time you land, you expose yourself to some kind of ground delay,” she said. “And once that starts, how do you catch up? There’s no time to catch up.”

Southwest, Bangs said, also does not have interline agreements with many airlines — meaning they can’t easily put passengers on other airlines’ flights if they need to.

Weather is an understandable obstacle, but there’s more to it, said Bill McGee, a senior fellow for aviation at American Economic Liberties Project, a group that has called for stricter regulation of the airline industry.

“It’s not about external conditions. It’s about how the airline is built to adapt to it,” he said.

Southwest was particularly vulnerable, he said, because of its failure to invest in IT and a lack of support in call centers.

In a press release, the union for Southwest Airlines flight attendants said the company has rapidly expanded without making technological upgrades for rerouting and rescheduling flights. TWU Local 556 also said some of its members have had to sleep on cots in airports across the country.

Union president Lyn Montgomery called the conditions for flight crews “despicable.”

“We know the demands of holiday travel. We know winter storms. And believe me, we know about stepping up and putting in long work hours when we are called to do so; we are flight attendants,” she said. “But at this point, the many years of failure by management, despite many unions’ demands to modernize, has left flight attendants fatigued, stranded, hungry and cold — on Christmas! This impacts lives and threatens safety for all.”

Paul Cassio, 66, flew out Manchester-Boston Regional Airport yesterday and had a layover at BWI for a connecting flight to Austin, Texas. He was set to eventually travel to San Diego, California.

Due to cancellations, the earliest Southwest Airlines can get him there is “probably” Dec. 31, he said.

”I’m obviously not going to Austin or San Diego anymore because they can’t get me there. … There’s no flight, no train and Southwest is just like, ‘Oh well’,” Cassio said. He hopes the airline can at least reroute his bags.

Cassio said he was told there aren’t enough crews to fly people in and out of the airport.

“If you had to cancel [on] people due to the weather, that’s one thing, but why am I canceled?” Cassio asked.

Flight cancellations appeared across the Baltimore/ Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport's information screens Tuesday.

Germaine and Kenneth Hemphill, who both live in Delaware, were scheduled to depart BWI for Miami at 10:10 a.m., but instead the pair stood at Southwest’s customer service counter for about 40 minutes to get their full refund from the airline.

The empty nesters were expected to board their Virgin Cruise at 6 p.m. with visits to Roatán in Honduras, Costa Maya on the Yucatan Peninsula and Bimini in the Bahamas.

”We were going on vacation, but I have been hearing many stories that are much more severe,” said Germaine. “And we’ve heard the excuses and we understand that these are just the frontline folks [at the counter], but somebody’s head should go for these poor logistics.”

Germaine is originally from Maryland and she has family in the Bowie area. She said she and her husband will visit them and may try to catch a train “to at least go somewhere.”

As for Mackenzie, he managed to get a Delta flight to Minneapolis for Wednesday to retrieve his bag and he’ll stay with another daughter in Frederick overnight.

”In the heat of the moment you’re always kind of like, ‘I’m never going to fly Southwest again.’ But, you go on with life,” he said. “You can’t hold grudges forever.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.