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Southwest Airlines widespread cancellations could be a sign of things to come


OK. Southwest Airlines is expected to operate at closer to normal today; this after thousands of flight delays and cancellations over the holiday weekend. Passengers were stranded for days at the airport, and all of this could be a sign of more disruptions ahead. Here's NPR's David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Fifty-two-year-old Jean Walsh was booked on a Southwest flight from Washington, D.C., to Oakland with a brief layover in Chicago on Saturday afternoon, but she still was at home when I reached her late yesterday.

JEAN WALSH: Well, what is it? Is it Monday? Because I lost track. Is it Tuesday? It's Tuesday. Yeah.

SCHAPER: Her Saturday flight was canceled. The flight she rebooked for Sunday was canceled, same on Monday. And Walsh grew frustrated after spending hours waiting in line at the airport, on hold on the phone and trying to rebook online to no avail.

WALSH: And so I just decided if I needed - if I wanted to get out of D.C., I would have to just go my own way. So I just booked a flight on another airline to Denver where I know people, and now I'm here and I'm waiting to get back to Oakland.

SCHAPER: And tens of thousands of other Southwest customers have had similar travel nightmares over the last five days.

HENRY HARTEVELDT: What we saw, frankly, on display was an alarming amount of incompetence by one of the largest airlines in the United States.

SCHAPER: Travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt says there were significant weather and air traffic control problems in the southeast on Friday that caused delays and cancellations all across the industry.

HARTEVELDT: And while other airlines were able to snap back to their normal level of operation fairly quickly, Southwest has been struggling. And on Sunday, they just had a total meltdown.

SCHAPER: One reason is that unlike hub and spoke airlines like American, Delta and United, Southwest flies point to point to point, says DePaul University airline expert Joe Schwieterman.

JOE SCHWIETERMAN: And when you do that, you don't sort of shuttle back and forth to a hub, it makes the recovery much more complicated because pilots are stuck all over the country. And you can't just substitute one flight for another coming in and out of the hub.

SCHAPER: But Schwieterman says airlines should plan ahead for such disruptions. And he says Southwest's statements blaming bad weather and the FAA's air traffic control problems don't add up.

SCHWIETERMAN: I've been watching aviation for a long time, and this one is a bit of an enigma because there is not a smoking gun that's completely credible. This is dragging out, and it suggests that maybe the labor climate at Southwest and the manpower models they're using for staffing are out of kilter.

SCHAPER: Southwest's pilots union blames the weekend meltdown on the airline's poor planning and what it calls an operation so brittle it's subject to massive failures under the slightest pressure. The union denies that some pilots called out sick in protest of Southwest's vaccine mandate but warns that mass terminations of unvaccinated pilots as the airline is threatened could lead to much more severe flight cancellations over the busy holiday season.

David Schaper, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEMON JELLY'S "'68 AKA ONLY TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.
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