Southwest Airlines canceled more than 600 flights over the weekend and suffered lengthy delays on thousands more, just the latest example of growing travel demand stretching airlines to the breaking point as the country reemerges from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Records from FlightAware.com show Southwest canceled more than 650 flights and delayed over 4,500 more from Friday through Sunday, a massive operational misfire for the popular Dallas-based carrier. Southwest's woes came a week after similar issues cropped up at American Airlines, which canceled hundreds of flights over Father's Day weekend and said it would trim hundreds more flights through July.
Officially, both airlines blamed bad weather for the delays and cancellations. Southwest toldUSA Today that thunderstorms in major cities like Denver, Chicago, and Orlando forced the airline to proactively cut flights to minimize disruptions across its route network.
But unofficially, there's a far more simple – and surprisingly common – issue at play: Airlines are much smaller than they were two years ago, and they're struggling to handle a rapid travel boom.
Surging Demand Airlines Stretches Airlines Thin
As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded and travel demand evaporated last year, airlines shrank into survival mode. Several rounds of federal subsidies helped keep flight attendants, pilots, and frontline employees on payroll, but airlines still downsized through buyouts, voluntary leave, and early retirements.
That was fine when just a few hundred thousand Americans were flying each day. But as travel inches closer to 2019 levels, airlines can't grow fast enough to handle the demand. In the case of both American and Southwest, it's clear the airlines scheduled more flights than they could actually operate. Eager to capitalize on the new surge in travel, they would up biting off more than they could chew.
In a memo obtained by USA Today, a Southwest executive sounded the alarm about a surge in employees calling in sick.
“We simply cannot manage the operation with the number of sick calls we are taking and quickly using reserves,” said Sonya Lacore, Southwest's vice president of inflight operations.
At American, View from the Wing reports the problem is with the airline's massive fleet of Boeing 737s: They don't have enough pilots ready to fly them. After entering hibernation mode last year, the airline can't retrain pilots fast enough to meet summer travel demand.
It's a different page from the same story we've seen throughout the last six months. That's why hold times calling Delta are often two hours or more: Delta let go of too many support agents in call centers. It's why lines to check a bag can take hours these days: There aren't enough airline staff in place to process them.
Remember: If an airline cancels your flight, they owe you a refund. That's a law in the U.S. Airlines also owe you a refund if they significantly change your flight: typically by two-plus hours or by adding a connection to a nonstop booking.
Travel is coming back fast, but that return brings some new problems and pain points with it.
Southwest canceled hundreds of flights and delayed thousands more over the weekend, the latest example of an airline struggling to cope with an uptick in travelers. By early Monday morning, Southwest had already canceled more than 100 flights and delayed another 125.
And that likely won't be the last of it. Like it or not, expect a turbulent summer if you're returning to the skies.