Massive Southwest Airlines disruption leaves customers stranded and call centers swamped

(CNN) — 

Last week’s winter weather travel mess is lingering like a hangover into this week — and the headaches are migraine-proportioned for Southwest Airlines and its frustrated passengers on Monday.

More than 3,600 flights within, into or out of the US had already been canceled by 4:10 p.m. ET Monday, according to flight tracking website FlightAware, while almost 5,800 flights had been delayed.

But Southwest accounts for a whopping share of those. None of the other US carriers have canceled nearly as many flights or as much of their schedule as Southwest.

The Dallas-based airline had canceled roughly two-thirds of its flights — about 2,700 total — as of 4:10 p.m. Monday, according to FlightAware. At one point, it canceled around 300 flights in the span of a half hour Monday afternoon.

On social media, customers are complaining loudly about long lines to speak with representatives, problems with lost bags and excessive wait times or busy signals on the airline’s customer service telephone lines.

Customers wait to rebook their Southwest Airlines flight at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Monday.

Customers wait to rebook their Southwest Airlines flight at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Monday.

CNN

CNN’s Carlos Suarez spoke with frustrated passengers in line at the Southwest ticket counter at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Monday.

He’s reportedthat about 150 customers were waiting in a long line at one point to rebook, with the line snaking around the back of the ticket counter.

‘Disruptions across our network’

Southwest responded to the massive cancellations in an emailed statement Monday afternoon:

“With consecutive days of extreme winter weather across our network behind us, continuing challenges are impacting our Customers and Employees in a significant way that is unacceptable,” the statement read.

“We’re working with Safety at the forefront to urgently address wide-scale disruption by rebalancing the airline and repositioning Crews and our fleet ultimately to best serve all who plan to travel with us.

“On the other side of this, we’ll work to make things right for those we’ve let down, including our Employees.”

In an earlier statement to CNN on Monday, Southwest Airlines said it is “experiencing disruptions across our network as a result of (the winter storm’s) lingering effects on the totality of our operation.”

Some of the airports seeing the biggest issue are Denver, Las Vegas, Chicago Midway, Baltimore/Washington, and Dallas Love Field where Southwest operates.

Customers encountered long lines at Southwest counters on Monday at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

Customers encountered long lines at Southwest counters on Monday at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

WRAL

Calls to Southwest’s customer service attempted Monday afternoon by CNN did not go through, so customers couldn’t even get in the queue to speak to a representative. Southwest told CNN it is “fully staffed to answer calls.”

The airline also says, “those whose flights have been canceled may request a full refund or receive a flight credit, which does not expire.”

tweet from Southwest directing customers to self-service options had more than 870 replies — many of them angry — around 4:30 p.m. ET

One of the replies in part read: “Stop blaming the WEATHER! Had to buy a first class ticket on another airline but it TOOK OFF ON TIME! You still have our luggage with medication inside! Can’t get through on the phone!”

Meanwhile, in hard-hit western New York, Buffalo International Airport said in its most recent tweet that it plans to resume passenger flights at 11 a.m. ET Tuesday.

The temperature at the airport was 19 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 7 Celsius) around 4 p.m. ET, with light snow falling on top of the huge amounts the area has already seen.

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What can stranded passengers do?

If you’ve been left in the lurch and your efforts to reach a customer service agent are going nowhere, the founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights suggests trying an international number.

“The main hotline for US airlines will be clogged with other passengers getting rebooked. To get through to an agent quickly, call any one of the airline’s dozens of international offices” Scott Keyes said.

Related content

What should I do if my flight has been canceled or delayed?

“Agents can handle your reservation just like US-based ones can, but there’s virtually no wait to get through.”

Click here to get international numbers that Southwest has previously posted.

Any relief in sight?

It could be next week before this is all completely sorted out.

“When there’s more than 10,000 flight cancellations over the past week, it takes time for airlines to work through and reaccommodate the backlog of travelers,” Keyes told CNN Travel in an email.

“While it will depend on the weather forecast (which looks promising for much of the country) and what number of travelers wind up canceling their holiday plans, I’d expect that by next week, things will have largely returned to normal,” Keyes said.

And why are so many people having trouble rebooking?

“One complicating factor for people hoping to get reaccommodated is the fact that there are so few available seats this season,” Keyes said.

“That’s both because Christmas and New Year is one of the most popular times of year for travel, and because the number of flights on the schedule this year is still down 15-20%, making the challenge even steeper for those needing to get rebooked.”

Bad road conditions

Road travel remained treacherous in parts of the US because of extreme wintry conditions.

In New York state’s western Erie County, emergency restrictions on driving were lifted in some communities but remained in place in Buffalo, County Executive Mark Poloncarz said Monday.

“The City of Buffalo is impassable in most areas, while mains may have a lane open for emergency traffic or two, most secondaries as well as side streets have not been touched yet,” Poloncarz said.

He adding that the cleared main roads are primarily for the use of life-saving measures to open up areas around hospitals and nursing homes.

A rough past week

A winter storm that swept across the US was ill-timed for travelers who had started pushing Christmas week flying numbers back toward pre-pandemic levels.

On Christmas Day, there were 3,178 flights canceled and 6,870 flight delayed, according to FlightAware.

On Christmas Eve, there were a total of 3,487 flights canceled, according to FlightAware.

Related content

What should I do if my luggage is delayed, lost or damaged?

Friday was the worst day of this streak with 5,934 cancellations, while Thursday saw almost 2,700 cancellations.

This megablast of winter weather across the eastern two-thirds of the nation is forecast to slowly moderate this week.

More developments to come on this breaking news story.

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