The holiday season is always incredibly busy at airports. Besides people looking to be with family and friends, the number of cargo planes, or boxes being shipped on airlines skyrockets with each passing day. The 2022 holiday season was no different, but for passengers who chose to fly Southwest, it was an absolute nightmare.
Now the US Department of Transportation (DOT) is stepping in.
With 16,700 flights canceled and thousands of passengers stranded in place for days, Southwest simply failed at every turn. While winter storms played a role in the cancellations at first, their outdated systems quickly snowballed an easy problem into a monumental crisis. This put them days behind other airlines in fixing the problems.
According to a DOT spokesperson, the unrealistic flight schedules Southwest was making were something that “under federal law is considered an unfair and deceptive practice.” They also explained, “DOT has made clear to Southwest that it must provide timely refunds and reimbursements and will hold Southwest accountable if it fails to do so.”
These cancellations cost Southwest $80 million per the airline’s president and CEO Bob Jordan. While half of that figure is lost directly from flight cancellations, the other half is a mixture of compensation to customers who purchased tickets on other airlines, and bonus frequent flier miles that ran about $300 per passenger.
For both passengers and employees, the lack of communication from the company made the entire situation even more frustrating. For many, this was the biggest problem with the airline. A weather delay is understandable. A problem with flight crew or pilots is even understandable to many. However, when you don’t communicate with either passengers or crew, you are showing a complete lack of respect and empathy for either group.
In response to their outrage, Jordan spoke up during an announcement of their losses, claiming they have “swiftly taken steps to bolster our operational resilience and are undergoing a detailed review of the December events.” With $220 million lost from this last quarter, and an estimated loss of $300 million in the first quarter, things are not looking good for the budget airline.
Thankfully for Southwest, with their lower prices, many passengers are showing up with lower expectations. While an incident like this would be more expected from Spirit or Allegiant Airlines, it’s still not a shock on these budget airlines. Thankfully with the DOT calling them on the carpet, they may begin to realize that their passengers matter just as much as they do on elite airlines.
Other airlines were quick to try and pick up the slack to help Southwest passengers. Delta, American, and United all stepped in to help passengers as much as they could. Reports of some extra flights from each airline helped to ease some of the congestion as Southwest remained silent about their failures.
This is not the first time Southwest has been in hot water over issues with inadequate staffing or with their systems failing. While those incidents have been much smaller by comparison, it serves yet again as another reminder of what flying with lower-cost airlines can result in. With fewer people now choosing Southwest for their air travel, investors are wondering how the airline will weather the storm.
So far, the DOT has yet to say exactly what they will be looking for in their investigation. As a total of $800 million in pre-tax losses being reported from the fourth quarter, it would seem that they could focus their efforts on financial deception, as well as improper business practices and fraud as part of the investigation.
No matter how this investigation is centered the financial woes and the lack of public trust could cause massive problems for the airline going forward. Their fares are already so low that there isn’t significant room to discount them more, and they can’t add much for features either. Combined, this could spell pure disaster for the company.