Passengers wait in line to book flights at a Southwest Airlines ticket counter at Denver International Airport

Passengers wait in line to book flights at a Southwest Airlines ticket counter at Denver International Airport in Colorado on December 22, 2022.

(Photo: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Southwest Under Fire for Mass Flight Cancellations, 'Despicable' Treatment of Workers

"This impacts lives and threatens safety for all," said the president of Transport Workers Union Local 556.

Southwest Airlines is facing calls for accountability from organized labor and congressional Democrats after canceling thousands of flights over the past week, leaving tens of thousands of workers and customers in limbo during the holiday season.

Every airline has experienced disruptions during Winter Storm Elliott, the dangerous nationwide cold snap that began just days before Christmas. But while other major carriers have largely recovered, Southwest continues to struggle, canceling roughly two-thirds of its flights on Tuesday. United, Delta, American, and JetBlue, by contrast, all reported flight cancellation rates of 2% or less on Tuesday.

While Southwest chief operating officer Andrew Watterson said in a memo sent to employees on Monday night that the company's current systems have been "overmatched" by extreme weather, the union representing Southwest flight attendants attributes ongoing operational failures and maltreatment of workers to the corporation's yearslong refusal to invest in much-needed technological upgrades.

"The way Southwest Airlines has treated its flight crews can only be termed 'despicable.'"

"The way Southwest Airlines has treated its flight crews can only be termed 'despicable,'" Lyn Montgomery, a Dallas-based flight attendant and president of Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 556, said Monday in a statement.

"We know the demands of holiday travel. We know winter storms. And believe me, we know about stepping up and putting in long work hours when we are called to do so; we are flight attendants," said Montgomery. "But at this point, the many years of failure by management, despite many unions' demands to modernize, has left flight attendants fatigued, stranded, hungry, and cold—on Christmas! This impacts lives and threatens safety for all."

According to TWU Local 556, thousands of Southwest crew members have been "stranded across the country, some forced to sleep on cots in airports, some in hotels without power or water, and far too many working long hours well past acceptable duty days, and more."

"Trying to get home for Christmas seems like a dream to flight attendants who are struggling with the nightmare of simply trying to secure appropriate shelter, food, and rest," the union added.

Other Southwest employees have also been subjected to abuse. According to a leaked memo from last Wednesday, Southwest's vice president for ground operations, Chris Johnson, told ramp agents at Denver International Airport (DIA) that they will be terminated if they refuse to work mandatory overtime or take a sick day without providing a doctor's note immediately upon their return.

Like other corporations, Southwest benefited from billions of dollars in federal aid during the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic. Although there have been no noticeable improvements in conditions for workers or consumers, chief executive officer Bob Jordan saw his annual compensation package increase to $9.1 million in 2022.

Meanwhile, thousands of Southwest customers have been stranded in airports around the country in recent days, with little knowledge of where their luggage is or when they will be able to reach their destination.

Although the company said Monday in a statement that its agents are trying to re-accommodate as many passengers as possible, it also announced that it will "continue operating a reduced schedule by flying roughly one-third of our schedule for the next several days."

"The plan was to get out of here by now," Amenit Alvarez, who is trying to travel from DIA, told CBS News Colorado on Monday. "I was supposed to be home for Christmas."

According to the outlet: "After two canceled flights since Thursday, Alvarez decided to wait and try rebooking later in the week. While she has friends to stay with, she knows other travelers don't have the same luxury."

In a Tuesday statement, Democratic Sens. Ed Markey (Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) called on Southwest to compensate customers for avoidable holiday flight cancellations.

"Southwest Airlines is failing consumers during the most important travel week of the year," said Markey and Blumenthal. "Instead of a holiday spent celebrating with family and friends, passengers are sleeping in airports or desperately trying to reach customer service agents."

"For those travelers whose holidays have been ruined, there is no real way for Southwest to make this right," the pair continued. "But the company can start by fairly compensating passengers whose flights were canceled, including not only rebooked tickets, ticket refunds, and hotel, meal, and transportation reimbursement, but significant monetary compensation for the disruption to their holiday plans."

"Southwest is planning to issue a $428 million dividend next year," the lawmakers added. "The company can afford to do right by the consumers it has harmed. Southwest should focus first on its customers stranded at airports and stuck on interminable hold."

As Bloomberg reported Tuesday:

The chaos will prove costly to the airline, with Citi analysts estimating it could shave 3% to 5% from Southwest's fourth-quarter earnings. There's a reputational cost as well, with angry travelers stranded over the holiday season and the airline having to apologize, much as it did in a similar collapse after storms in October 2021.
Dallas-based Southwest's shares declined as much as 6.3% Tuesday and were down 4.8% at 12:53 pm, while United rose and American and Delta declined less than 1%.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) said late Monday that it "is concerned by Southwest's unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays and reports of lack of prompt customer service." The agency announced that it "will examine whether cancellations were controllable and if Southwest is complying with its customer service plan."

Without naming Southwest, U.S. President Joe Biden wrote Tuesday on Twitter that "our administration is working to ensure airlines are held accountable" and pointed consumers to a DOT dashboard where they can see if they are entitled to compensation.

U.S. Rep. Jesús "Chuy" García (D-Ill.) welcomed the DOT's probe of Southwest, arguing that what the company's CEO calls a "tough day" is better understood as a manifestation of "corporate greed."

Southwest "hurt itself with an aggressive schedule and by underinvesting in its operations," CNNreported Tuesday. "Stranded customers have been unable to get through to Southwest's customer service lines to rebook flights or find lost baggage. Employees also said they have not been able to communicate with the airline."

Montgomery, the president of TWU Local 556, told the outlet that "the phone system the company uses is just not working."

"They're just not manned with enough manpower in order to give the scheduling changes to flight attendants, and that's created a ripple effect that is creating chaos throughout the nation," she added.

Southwest's current issues have been brewing for a long time, according to captain Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association.

"Southwest is planning to issue a $428 million dividend next year. The company can afford to do right by the consumers it has harmed."

"We've been having these issues for the past 20 months," he told CNN. "We've seen these sorts of meltdowns occur on a much more regular basis and it really just has to do with outdated processes and outdated IT."

"It's phones, it's computers, it's processing power, it's the programs used to connect us to airplanes—that's where the problem lies, and it's systemic throughout the whole airline,” said Murray.

Southwest CEO Jordan, in a memo to employees obtained by CNN, acknowledged many of Murray's concerns and pledged to invest in better systems.

"Part of what we're suffering is a lack of tools," Jordan told employees. "We've talked an awful lot about modernizing the operation, and the need to do that."

Markey and Blumenthal argued that "Southwest cannot avoid compensating passengers by claiming these flight cancellations were caused by recent winter storms."

"As Southwest executives have acknowledged," the airline's recent mass cancellations have been "largely due to the failure of its own internal systems," said the lawmakers. "As such, those cancellations should be categorized as 'controllable,' and Southwest should compensate passengers accordingly."

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