On Monday, December 26, Ilana Litvak went to the airport in St. Louis, Missouri to catch a Southwest Airlines flight to New York City, where she would be embarking on the trip of a lifetime: a Birthright Israel journey to explore her Jewish roots. But the UX designer’s dream trip soon turned into a nightmare.
Litvak was just one of hundreds of thousands of Americans whose travel plans have been destroyed during a meltdown of epic proportions as Southwest Airlines has canceled thousands of flights across the country.
“It was horrible—I’ve never experienced anything like this,” says Litvak, who couldn’t get through to Southwest’s customer service by phone and spent seven hours in a line at the airport attempting to get rebooked. She finally got a seat on a flight later in the day, but there was no one available to fly the plane, as the crew was stuck in another city.
“When Southwest made an announcement that no one would be able to fly out of St. Louis until Thursday, I gave up and went home,” says the 26-year-old, who is still trying to find a way to get to New York City to catch her international flight to Israel on Wednesday.
Southwest Airlines’ woes began after extreme winter weather paralyzed much of the United States starting late last week, stranding holiday travelers and creating a ripple effect of chaos at airports across the country. Other airlines have also had issues, but Southwest’s problems have been cataclysmic—with the airline canceling 10 times as many flights as other carriers. “This is really as bad as it gets for an airline,” Kyle Potter, executive editor of Thrifty Traveler, told NPR. “We’ve seen this again and again over the course of the last year or so, when airlines really just struggle especially after a storm, but there’s pretty clear skies across the country.”
On social media, users have been posting about Southwest, showing historically long lines, piles of luggage, passengers stranded for days and passengers reporting that they would not be able to rebook anytime soon.
And it’s not only passengers who are being impacted. Lyn Montgomery, the president of Southwest’s flight attendant union, told CNN that flight attendants have been left stranded and sleeping in airports, describing “a ripple effect that is creating chaos throughout the nation,” he said. “The way Southwest Airlines has treated its flight crews can only be termed ‘despicable.’”
According to flight tracking website FlightAware, Southwest Airlines canceled more than 2,900 flights on Monday, accounting for 71% of its inventory. Since last Thursday, Southwest has canceled more than 8,000 flights—and the nightmare is going to spill into Tuesday, though experts say it might take another week to resolve the situation.
The airline has blamed the problems on the weather, but according to a transcript obtained by CNN, Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan told employees on December 24 that the airline has “a lot of issues in the operation right now.” He also said: “Part of what we’re suffering is a lack of tools. We’ve talked an awful lot about modernizing the operation, and the need to do that.”
On Monday night, the Department of Transportation posted on Twitter that the situation is “unacceptable” and will be investigating the issues: “USDOT is concerned by Southwest’s unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays & reports of lack of prompt customer service. The Department will examine whether cancellations were controllable and if Southwest is complying with its customer service plan.”
Airports across the country were having problems, but the airports with the biggest issues for Southwest include Denver, Chicago Midway, Baltimore/Washington, Dallas Love Field, Nashville and Las Vegas.