Travel

Southwest Certainly Wasn't Bringing People Cheer this Christmas Season [UPDATED]

Jay McVay addresses the public to update them on Southwest's plans to tackle the travel problems.
Jay McVay addresses the public to update them on Southwest's plans to tackle the travel problems. Screenshot


Update 12:40 p.m. 12-29-22: Southwest Airlines has released this statement:

While Southwest continues to operate roughly one third of its schedule for Thursday, Dec. 29, we plan to return to normal operations with minimal disruptions on Friday, Dec. 30.
We are encouraged by the progress we've made to realign Crew, their schedules, and our fleet. With another holiday weekend full of important connections for our valued Customers and Employees, we are eager to return to a state of normalcy.
We know even our deepest apologies – to our Customers, to our Employees, and to all affected through this disruption – only go so far.
We've set up a page at Southwest.com/traveldisruption for Customers to submit refund and reimbursement requests for meals, hotel, and alternate transportation; as well as to connect Customers to their baggage.
We have much work ahead of us, including investing in new solutions to manage wide-scale disruptions.
We aim to serve our Customers and Employees with our legendary levels of Southwest Hospitality and reliability again very soon.


Original story:

Southwest Airlines was the Grinch nobody was expecting this Christmas after operational issues and cancellations led to delays that still have travelers stuck at airports — including Houston's Hobby Airport — for the next several days.


The airline canceled 70 percent of its flights on Monday and 60 percent of its flights on Tuesday. In a statement given to the Houston Press from Southwest, to handle continued issues the airline will be reducing their current operational flight schedule to one third of planned flights.


Customers who are stuck may be forced to ring in the new year in a hotel or on the road amid last minute road-trips, alternative options for travel that many chose instead of waiting for unguaranteed rebooked flights.


Jay McVay, Southwest spokesman held a press conference in Houston on Tuesday to update the public on the cause of the massive disruption. He said Southwest was facing operational problems because of the widespread cancellations from Winter Storm Elliot.


These cancellations caused crews and planes to be displaced, said McVay, leaving crew members needing to call Southwest to see if they were reassigned to other flights.


According to McVay, though Southwest had no staffing shortages for their holiday flight schedule, when crew members called to check reassignments there were not enough employees to answer crew member calls.


“The issue wasn’t so much technology, as it was sheer manpower to answer all these calls and reassign all these pilots and flight attendants to the flights they need to be on,” said McVay, at the press conference.


McVay said Southwest was willing to offer hotels and any form of ride assistance, like vans or rental cars, to make sure customers were accommodated as quickly as possible. He also encouraged customers to keep their receipts and reach out to reservation numbers or Southwest’s website to check on the airline’s assistance options.


Though McVay cited cancellations from inclement weather as the causation of these problems, the Department of Transportation is investigating the situation, as there were some complaints that it had more to do with Southwest’s scheduling and internal system.


In a statement to the Houston Press, the Department of Transportation said:


The rate of cancellations and delays on Southwest Airlines is unacceptable and dramatically higher than other U.S. carriers. This afternoon, Secretary Buttigieg spoke with the CEO of Southwest Airlines and conveyed that he expects the airline to live up to the commitments it has made to passengers, including providing meal vouchers, refunds, and hotel accommodations for those experiencing significant delays or cancellations that came about as a result of Southwest’s decisions and actions. Southwest, as all airlines, is also obligated to provide a cash refund for passengers whose flights were canceled and decided not to travel.

The Secretary also spoke with union leaders that represent Southwest’s flight attendants and pilots. They conveyed to him that many flight attendants and pilots are stranded alongside passengers, sleeping on cots or having to book their own hotel rooms. He also conveyed to Southwest’s CEO that he expects Southwest to do right by their pilots and flight attendants—and all their workers— in these situations.

The Department will take action to hold Southwest accountable if it fails to fulfill its obligations and we will stay engaged with Southwest Airlines to make sure the airline does not allow a situation like this to happen again.   

Though some assistance was offered, many customers grew exhausted waiting in lines for hours on end while being told they could not be guaranteed to be put on a flight by the end of week.


Some threw in the towel, admitting defeat and booked hotel rooms in their respective locations. Those that were stuck in Houston sought refuge in hotels near Hobby Airport, hoping they would wake up to good news about re-bookings.


However, some travelers decided to take matters into their own hands and searched for car rental companies with available rental cars.


Charles Twilling and Mindi Larkin opted to rent a car, after finding out their flight Monday morning back home to New Orleans from Denver was canceled.


“Our flight was canceled yesterday and Southwest didn’t even message us, we only knew because we went on the app and found out,” Twilling said. “I called Southwest and they said there were no flights in the U.S at the moment and that they couldn’t get us anywhere until December 31.”


The husband and wife team had already battled a 15-hour delay that involved two cancellations and two re-bookings on their way to Denver. Twilling, who flies an average of 100 times a year across all airlines for work, checked all other airfare prices. According to him, the ticket that would typically cost around $300, had soared to around $1,000.


After requesting a refund from Southwest, which the airline said would be sent within a 10-day period, they turned to Avis-Rent-a-Car.


They waited three hours, and were finally able to get a one-way car for $754. “There weren't many issues with renting the car, other than the wait time and the surge in prices,” said Twilling. “Normally, a rental car like this would be around $200, but with the insurance included I ended up putting around $700 on my credit card.”


John and Ella Rybacki were left in a similar situation when they found out their flight home to Phoenix was canceled. Like Twilling and Larkin, they were not notified directly by the airline. Needing to get back to their dog and two job interviews John had scheduled, and being unable to afford increased airfares, they decided to rent a car.


“We just decided we had to get home and the only way that we knew that would be guaranteed was if we drove,” said Ella.


They started looking for cars and no rental places nearby had anything available. When they were able to find a car, it would cost them around $500 for their three-day rental. The prices continued to increase the more they looked to nearly $900.


“We ended up going through Costco travel and Enterprise was able to rent us a car,” said Ella. “We picked it up and we’re basically traveling straight through as best we can and we’ll only be stopping to sleep for a few hours.

With the two additional hotel nights they are paying for to take breaks during their three-day trip, the Rybackis estimate their total cost of travel will be around $2,000, whereas their plane tickets for the trip back together were $650.


This unexpected road trip will also potentially cost John the second job interview, as it was scheduled for Tuesday and he had not heard back about potential rescheduling.


“I am still waiting to hear if it’s even possible and unfortunately, that was the job I was really hoping to land ahead of the New Year as I’m currently between two jobs,” John said.


For Twilling and Larkin, they spent $1,500 more than they initially paid for their return tickets and lost precious Christmas memories with their family.


“We were in Denver with my children for a total of 17 hours and we live 1,300 miles away from them,” Larkin said. “We wasted so much time, and we only get to see them so often.”


Twilling, who has 20 flights queued up in the next several weeks with Southwest, has no idea what will come for his already-planned travel itinerary. “I don’t know if the flights are going to be valid, I have tried to call numerous times and I can’t get through to their phone lines,” said Charles. “Southwest tweeted me to direct message them, I did and I got no response.


“It’s heart-wrenching and awful what’s going on and other airlines and rental car companies are using this opportunity to do a cash grab when people are stranded and in need,” said Twilling.


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Faith Bugenhagen is on staff as a news reporter for The Houston Press, assigned to cover the Greater-Houston area.