Southwest Airlines is doing damage control after more than 2,000 flights were canceled over this past weekend, stranding thousands of passengers at airports across the country.
“I want to apologize to all of our customers. This is not what we want,” CEO Gary Kelly said Tuesday on Good Morning America. “Unfortunately it just takes a couple of days to get things back on track.”
The airline began canceling some flights last Friday, then hundreds more on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. By Tuesday morning, the schedule was close to running normally.
So what caused the chaos? Southwest had a number of changing explanations throughout the events.
1. Bad Weather
Southwest originally blamed bad weather for some of the cancellations, but other airlines were flying to and from the same destinations and had no issues.
2. Air Traffic Control
Southwest initially said air traffic control issues played a part in the cancelations. The Federal Aviation Administration disputed the airline’s claim regarding air traffic control, telling USA Today those issues started and ended Friday. On Tuesday, Kelly admitted that was the case — but insinuated the initial shortages were a factor in dislodging the schedule.
“There were no ATC (air traffic control) issues over the weekend. That’s absolutely true,” Kelly said. “But I think any industry expert knows that it takes several days, if you have that large of an impact on the operation, to get the airplanes where they need to be, and then to match the crews up with that.”
3. Other External Constraints
The phrase “other external constraints” was used by the airline over the weekend. What it means is anybody’s guess, since Southwest did not specify what the constraints might be. That got people guessing.
The cancelations came shortly after Southwest announced a vaccine mandate for employees, a decision strongly opposed by the pilots union. But a spokesperson for the pilots said a protest “sick out” did not occur and was not the reason behind staffing issues this weekend.
The blame belongs “squarely on Southwest,” Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, told CBS News. “I point to how they manage the network and how their IT also supports the network.
“Once a little hiccup occurs due to the internal processes, our pilots aren’t getting to where they need to be. We’ve been sounding this alarm for about four years and have seen very little approach to correcting it.”
Large numbers of flight cancellations have happened several times this year, with staffing shortages one of the primary factors. In September, Robert Jordan, who will become CEO in February, said the airline is taking steps to solve that issue.
Jordan said the company is looking to hire 5,000 additional workers this fall, and another 8,000 in early 2022. He said then that finding workers has been a challenge, and the company has changed its pay structure, and has offered retention bonuses and referral bonuses to find and keep employees.
The airline has issued multiple statements over the past few days apologizing to customers.
“The Southwest team appreciates the patience of customers, and we extend our gratitude to our employees who have worked tirelessly to stabilize our operation,” it said Tuesday. “We’ve built a reputation around safe, reliable, friendly air travel, delivered with legendary Southwest hospitality, and we’re sorry to anyone whose experience did not reflect that over the past several days.”
Southwest officials hope this past weekend’s issues are behind them.
“To every customer that experienced a cancellation or delay, Southwest offers our sincerest regret regarding disrupted travel plans, and we look forward to a future opportunity to demonstrate our safe, reliable, friendly, and legendary Southwest hospitality,” it said.
On Wednesday, they released what they say is their final statement on the matter.
“Southwest Airlines resumed normal operations today. We thank our Employees for the hospitality they’ve shown our Customers during this challenging time. We extended our deepest apologies to Customers who have been impacted and look forward to welcoming them back on a future Southwest flight.”