Southwest Airlines is suffering a holiday hangover that’s causing a headache for thousands of travelers from Baltimore to San Diego.
Here we thought COVID-19 or the flu might cancel Christmas and New Year’s celebrations but it turns out an airline has gone viral instead.
According to FlightAware, over 2,900 flights into, within or from the United States have been canceled today. Of those flights, Southwest is responsible for some 2,500 cancellations. And Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport has the fourth highest number of canceled flights. Only Las Vegas, Denver and Chicago have more.
Here are five things you need to know if you’re stuck at BWI or another airport with hopes of getting home before 2023.
1. Blame the weather but there’s plenty of blame to go around
The arctic cold that wrapped the lower-48 in its icy embrace for several days is certainly a root cause of the current situation. But also worth a look are the ongoing staffing shortages faced by several airlines due to early retirements, sickness and more. Industry insiders have pointed to particularly dire issues for Southwest, including a recent lack of ramp workers that led the airline to declare an operational emergency in Denver earlier this month.
2. To get home now, find an alternative way to go
If you need to get home within the next few days or so, start lining up alternative travel options. Rental cars seem the most obvious, but several rental agencies have experienced shortages on their lots this year. Fleets are depleted and may be extremely difficult to book especially at the airport locations. Look for offsite rental agencies that you can Uber to from the airport. For example, Enterprise had no bookings available for tomorrow at BWI, however their Silver Spring location had availability. Booking a flight on a different airline is another option for those stuck at the airport but Southwest doesn’t partner with any other airlines so travelers will be on their own in making those arrangements. At BWI, only Southwest and Spirit airlines had cancellations as of Tuesday afternoon. The remaining airlines appeared to be operating normally.
3. Southwest may reimburse for hotels and replacement flights
If you’re lucky enough to get a flight on another airline there’s a good chance Southwest will reimburse your funds or at least issue a refund for your canceled flight. Most airlines have entered into agreements with the U.S. Department of Transportation to also provide for hotel and food expenses for passengers who are delayed more than three hours by events other than weather — like staff calling out sick. So there’s the rub. If Southwest contends the delays and cancellations are primarily due to the wintry weather, passengers will face a more difficult path to be reimbursed for some costs. In a statement Monday, the airline said: “We were fully staffed and prepared for the approaching holiday weekend when the severe weather swept across the continent…” leaving little doubt as to its position. However in a message to employees, Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan appeared to acknowledge at least some difficulty in putting together crews to work the holiday flights.
4. The Dept. of Transportation is investigating
No matter what Southwest contends, the government has already said it will investigate what happened. The Department of Transportation tweeted Monday that it would look into the airline’s holiday meltdown. The DOT specifically noted that it had concerns that Southwest was not “complying with its customer service plan.” The plan calls for the airline to give prompt notification of canceled flights, process fast refunds and arrange delivery of baggage. (We won’t discuss baggage except to say maybe save those Christmas gifts you packed for Presidents’ Day.)
5. Don’t go to the airport until you confirm your flight
Southwest has canceled 70% of its schedule as of Tuesday afternoon. That means there are a lucky few who are boarding on-time flights today. With that in mind it’s still important to check the status of your flight before heading to the airport. There are traveler reports that Southwest is not updating its itineraries online or sending text notifications to passengers who are booked on canceled flights. You can check BWI’s flight dashboard here.