In the wake of Southwest Airlines’ cancellation disaster over the past week, some competitors are filling in to assist its stranded customers at the end of the holiday travel season.
Rival carriers have capped airfares at several key airports, as a surge of Southwest customers booked last-minute domestic flights, after the low-cost airline canceled thousands of departures.
Air carriers across the United States were forced to terminate thousands of flights as a massive winter storm swept over much of the country before and during the Christmas holiday weekend.
However, Southwest fared the worse, allegedly due to an antiquated computer system.
The storm moved through the Great Lakes region to the East Coast, causing havoc in cities like Buffalo, New York, after slamming the Plains and Midwest.
Meanwhile, a separate winter front has brought further heavy precipitation to the Pacific Northwest and disrupted travel there.
So far, at least 60 people have died across the country due to weather-related incidents since last week.
Southwest Operations Break Down as Other Airlines Fill In
While other airlines have largely recovered from the storm, Southwest has been pushing its employees to work overtime and to assist its overwhelmed crews across the country in restoring its flight schedules.
Reports of stranded travelers and canceled flights during the busy holiday travel season have drawn scrutiny from Biden administration officials and members of Congress.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, called for airlines to cap fares in a tweet, saying “I’m encouraged to see several airlines have now committed to this step—all of them should.”
Soon after, Delta Air Lines capped fares in all domestic and international markets where Southwest operates through Jan. 2.
American Airlines also posted on Twitter that it was doing its part to “help get people where they need to be and we’re putting a cap on fares for select cities.”
A United Airlines spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal that it was “capping fares in select cities to make sure our flights are available to as many customers as possible.”
Spirit Airlines noted on its website that it was waiving modification charges and fare differences through Jan. 3, for more than a dozen cities, such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.
Low-Cost Airline Faces Disaster With Tens Of Thousands of Cancellations
Southwest had canceled a total of more than 14,500 flights since Dec. 23, as it struggled to manage its operations in the midst of severe winter weather.
A further 2,500 flights were canceled on Dec. 28, approximately 62 percent of its planned departures, according to the flight tracking website FlightAware.
Even worse, thousands of passengers reported being separated from their luggage due to the canceled flights, while others complained that their bags were lost by the airline.
The airline has since pledged to assist affected travelers applying for refunds and issue reimbursements for lost baggage.
Southwest CEO Bob Jordan, announced that the airline will run a reduced schedule over the next few days, in order to reposition its staff and planes and posted a video apology for customers and employees, reported The Wall Street Journal.
“We have some real work to do in making this right. For now, I want you to know that we’re committed to that,” said Jordan.
The CEO explained that the company needs to upgrade its legacy systems after the operational failure these past several days.
“We’re focused on safely getting all the pieces back into position to end this rolling struggle,” stated Jordan.
“Clearly we need to double down on our already existing plans to upgrade systems for these extreme circumstances so we never again face what’s happening right now,” he added.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Jordan told reporters back in November that the airline had expanded far more than what its technology could handle.
“We’ve talked a little over the last year about the need to modernize the operation and invest,” said the CEO in a memo this week, “this is why.”
Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, told Reuters that “Southwest is using outdated technology and processes, really from the ’90s, that can’t keep up with the network complexity today.”
Southwest Chief Operating Officer Andrew Watterson, told employees that he was hopeful the airline will be able to ramp back up again by Dec. 30, reported The Wall Street Journal.
Biden Administration and Congress Want Answers
President Joe Biden said that his administration would work to ensure airlines were “held accountable,” in a statement.
Buttigieg announced that his department would hold Southwest Airlines accountable for the travel disruptions and its continued canceled flights indicated a major system failure on its part.
“We are past the point where they could say this is a weather-driven issue,” Buttigieg told ABC News’ Good Morning America in an interview.
“Don’t get me wrong, all of this began with that severe storm. We saw winter weather affecting the country and severely disrupting all airlines.”
“So what this indicates is a system failure and they need to make sure that these stranded passengers get to where they need to go and that they are provided adequate compensation, not just for the flights itself … but also things like hotels, like ground transportation, like meals because this is the airlines’ responsibility,” Buttigieg concluded.
He noted that the rest of the airline industry appeared to have recovered from the weather disruptions, while Southwest has not.
The Transportation Department posted on Twitter that the secretary had already spoken to Jordan and airline union leaders this week.
Meanwhile, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), stated that the Senate Commerce Committee would soon be investigating the airline’s flight disruptions.
This would mean that the airline would have to reimburse affected customers for incidental expenses and full refunds for airfares.
Reuters contributed to this report.