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Southwest cancels 70% of its flights as travelers try to get home

The airline acknowledged that it had been crippled by winter weather and said it plans to fly about one-third of its schedule in the coming days as it recovers.
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Thousands of Southwest Airline flights scheduled to depart on Tuesday and Wednesday have been canceled following the beleaguered airline's admission that it would fly just one-third of its schedule in the travel-heavy days after Christmas.

As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 2,500 Southwest flights — 63% of its schedule were canceled, according to the flight tracking website FlightAware. Nearly the same amount of the airline's flights have already been cancelled for Wednesday, FlightAware shows.

More than 4,700 total flights scheduled to depart Tuesday have been canceled, with Southwest cancellations making up about 54% of those. And more than 3,500 flights scheduled to leave Wednesday have already been canceled, with Southwest constituting about 70% of those cancellations, according to FlightAware.

On Monday, Southwest canceled more than 2,800 flights, or 70% of its schedule, frustrating passengers across the nation. Overall, around 3,900 flights were canceled within, into or out of the U.S. on Monday, according to the flight-tracking website FlightAware.

“Our heartfelt apologies for this are just beginning [sic],” Southwest said in a statement Monday.

The airline plans to fly one-third of its schedule — or around 1,500 flights — for the next “several days” so that it can reposition flight crews who are out of position, the company said.

“On the other side of this, we’ll work to make things right for those we’ve let down, including our employees,” the airline added in the Monday statement.

The union representing more than 18,000 Southwest Airlines flight attendants, TWU Local 556, said in a statement released on Monday that the company "has failed its employees once again" as "the result of years of refusal to modernize operations."

An airline representative did not immediately return a request for comment on Tuesday on the union's statement.

The representative also did not respond to a question on Tuesday from NBC News about how many flights it had preemptively canceled for the rest of the week or when it expects to resume a normal schedule, saying that it doesn't "have figures to share." The spokesperson said that while its inventory is low, the airline still has some flights available to book.

'I'm angry as hell'

Photos and video posted to social media showed bags piling up at Denver International Airport and Chicago’s Midway Airport, and Southwest said it was inundated with calls and messages and asked for patience. Federal transportation officials called the cancellations unacceptable.

“I’m angry as hell, because I see mismanagement,” Ihore Konrad told NBC Chicago. He had been stranded at the airport for two days because of cancellations, according to the station.

Southwest blamed “operational challenges” that followed days of severe winter weather across most of the country and said that it was fully staffed ahead of the holiday.

“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 CEO Bob Jordan also told The Wall Street Journal that the company plans to operate just over one-third of its typical schedule Tuesday and Wednesday.

“We had a tough day today. In all likelihood we’ll have another tough day tomorrow as we work our way out of this,” Jordan told the newspaper.

Much of the continental U.S., at one point covering over 200 million people, was under winter weather warnings or alerts going into the holiday weekend, with bitterly cold temperatures and ice.

On Saturday, Sunday and Monday combined, over 8,200 flights into, out of or within the U.S. were canceled, according to FlightAware.

Calls for accountability

The issue with Southwest flights also caught the attention of the Transportation Department, which called the airline's performance unacceptable.

"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," a department spokesperson said in a statement.

"As more information becomes available the Department will closely examine whether cancellations were controllable and whether Southwest is complying with its customer service plan as well as all other pertinent DOT rules," the statement said.

President Joe Biden also weighed in on Tuesday, tweeting that his administration "is working to ensure airlines are held accountable" and urging people whose flights were canceled to visit the Department of Transportation's online dashboard to see if they are eligible for refunds.

Senators Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, called on the airline company to pay for "ticket refunds, and hotel, meal, and transportation reimbursement" along with "significant monetary compensation for the disruption to their holiday plans."

Chaos comes during some of busiest travel time

The day after Christmas is typically one of busier travel days of the year — although the Transportation Security Administration said last week it expected Dec. 22 and Dec. 30 to be the busiest this year.

More than 2 million passengers passed through TSA checkpoints Friday, and on Sunday the number was 1.7 million, according to the TSA website. More than 2.2 million passengers passed through the checkpoints on Monday, marking the largest day of Dec. 26 travel since 2019, when 2.5 million passengers passed through TSA checkpoints.

At Raleigh-Durham International Airport in North Carolina, what was supposed to have been a flight instead turned to long trips by road — after Southwest flights were canceled, passengers were given the choice to travel by bus, NBC affiliate WRAL of Raleigh reported.

“There’s nothing else I can do except sit on this bus to get back home,” passenger Eric Ford told the station.