Southwest Airlines cancels thousands more U.S. flights as weather stays bitter

Southwest Airlines cancels thousands more U.S. flights as weather stays bitter

Travelers wait at a Southwest Airlines baggage counter to retrieve their bags after canceled flights at Los Angeles International Airport, on Los Angeles on Dec. 26.Eugene Garcia/The Associated Press

Southwest Airlines Co LUV-N on Tuesday led U.S. airline cancellations again as the low-cost carrier struggled with harsh winter weather that grounded planes and left some workers unable to tend to jets, disrupting holiday travel for many.

The carrier had canceled 2,589 flights as of Tuesday 2.25 pm ET or roughly two-thirds of its schedule, representing 86% of all U.S. airline cancellations, according to tracking website FlightAware.

Additionally, Southwest called off about 2,500 flights scheduled for Wednesday and over 1,000 flights from its Thursday schedule.

Shares of Southwest fell as much as 6.3% to a two-month low of $33.81.

The airline’s cancellations on Tuesday were 30 times more than those of Spirit Airlines, the carrier with the second-most cancellations.

An arctic blast and a massive winter storm dubbed Elliott swept over much of the United States in the lead-up to the Christmas holiday weekend, forcing Southwest to scrap more than 12,000 flights since Friday.

The company has a more aggressive schedule than most other U.S. airlines and tighter turnaround times to accommodate its network that connects vast swathes of the country.

It earns most of its profits from flying domestically and unlike other large U.S. carriers, Southwest relies more on point-to-point service instead of operating out of large hubs. That leaves its staff vulnerable to being stranded in case of disruptions.

The official POTUS handle for U.S. President Joe Biden tweeted on Tuesday that his administration was working to ensure airlines were “held accountable.”

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul called on the U.S. Transportation Department, which is scrutinizing Southwest’s cancellations, to adopt rules that would ensure airlines provide relief to those who experience cancelations and long delays not related to inclement weather.

“We expect Southwest to call out the impact (from the storm) as it was worse than the industry and likely hurt earnings more than a ‘normal’ storm,” Cowen analyst Helane Becker said in a note.

“Other airlines likely had manageable cancellations and delays, and actually appear to have recovered (in time to get everyone home).”

Staff could not stay outdoors for long due to the risk of frostbite, crimping Southwest’s ability to fly, said Randy Barnes, president of TWU Local 555, a union that represents the carrier’s ramp, operations, provisioning and freight agents.

“Southwest is using outdated technology and processes, really from the 90s, that can’t keep up with the network complexity today,” said Casey Murray, president of Southwest Airlines Pilots Association.

The weather has thrown Southwest’s staffing into chaos since Friday, prompting its chief executive, Bob Jordan, to promise efforts in upgrading the company’s systems, according to a memo reported earlier by CNN and confirmed to Reuters by Southwest.

“We had aircraft that were available, but the process of matching up those crew members with the aircraft could not be handled by our technology,” Southwest said, adding crew schedulers had to match planes with staff manually which is “extraordinarily difficult.”

In total, airlines have canceled more than 5,000 U.S. flights for Tuesday and Wednesday.

Shares in other U.S. carriers such as Alaska Air Group , JetBlue Airways Corp and Spirit Airlines fell about 1% to 2%.

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