Southwest Declares Emergency In Denver, No One To Work The Ramp

I’ve had several readers ask why Southwest Airlines is cancelling so many more flights than other carriers this holiday, and why their operation in Denver is worse than United’s – so it’s not just weather. I initially assumed that the way Southwest routes its planes – throughout its system, rather than isolating them with back-and-forths – tends to cause cancellations across the system when there are localized disruptions.

However it turns out they’re having a bigger problem in Denver. There are a lack of employees working the ramp. As aviation watchdog JonNYC reports, Southwest has declared an emergency there, and it’s extreme. The airline is threatening to fire employees who call out sick without a doctor’s note and telemedicine appointments with doctors won’t even be accepted. The memo begins by referring to rampers’ “alleged” illnesses.

The state of operational emergency that’s requiring everyone to show up at work, including mandatory overtime, is not working. Here’s one flight in particular that was turned around on its way to Denver on December 22 because the airline lacked rampers to receive it, which JonNYC brings to our attention.

It’s unclear what caused the staff shortage initially, but one unconfirmed explanation is mass resignations.

However according to the airline,

Due to the conditions, we’ve been rotating ramp crews to limit exposing our People for an extended period. As this requires essentially double the Employees to turn an aircraft, we’ve reduced our operation at DEN until temperatures rise. We’re optimistic today’s and the future weather forecast looks more promising.

Denver has faced extreme temperatures below zero over the past several days, though it’s currently expected to rise above freezing this morning.

I’ve never personally seen planes turned around while enroute due to lack of rampers to receive them. Southwest led the world in cancellations on Friday with 1334 or 32 of its schedule (half of its flights were delayed). Denver had the third-most cancellations of any airport across all airlines with 251, though far behind leader Seattle with 363. Already today Southwest has cancelled more flights than other U.S. airlines.

There’s a clear shortage of rampers, and some of it is no doubt due to the cold – people can’t stay outside as long in extreme cold, so more staff would be needed than normal to handle the same number of flights. But reports from within the airline are that there simply haven’t been any rampers available, and one flight was even turned around, operating a four hour flight to nowhere as a result.

Southwest is imposing extreme measures that result in crew showing up even when sick, as an in-person doctor’s appointment and note are required to justify any absence. Is it even possible to get a doctor’s appointment on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning? And if a ramper gets sick and follows up with a doctor a couple of days later, will it be possible to get an attestation that they were symptomatic on their first date of absence? The uncertainty alone, with threat of termination, could pressure employees to show up sick in extreme temperatures, while infecting each other.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »



  1. Southwest might want to consider increasing pay 1.5X for extreme weather events during the holidays. Sounds much cheaper than cancelling hundreds of flights or 4 hour “flights to nowhere” due to no ramp crews. Just plane stupid.

  2. It was -24 at Denver airport Thursday morning. Not safe to be out for any length of time. I know it is a pain for people flying but safety has to be considered. A few years ago I had a meeting in Chicago in January. Turns out it was -15 that day (coldest weather I have ever experienced). I was on American but they cancelled all flights to ORD due to weather – they wouldn’t let their people work outside in that weather. I got a flight on SW to Midway and took the train (2 hours) to ORD then caught a cab to the airport hotel for the meeting.

    There are serious considerations when the weather is this bad and, while it definitely inconveniences people flying, airlines should prioritize the health and well being of their employees.

  3. Ramp agents can get a job anywhere. And Southwest is being cheap. You can’t be outside for 8 hours in the freezing cold. This is Southwest’s own making.

  4. Didn”t American Airlines pay their crews last year 1.5X (or bonuses) for not calling in sick Nov-Dec? Did AA also do it this year again to avoid a large number of sick calls during the holidays? With the labor shortage many workers can easily find other employment.

  5. My southwest flight out of DIA was cancelled this morning. Planned for months, no other flights available for 3 days. Not a happy camper I’d an understatement.

  6. Weather alerts for DEN were for extreme exposure/frostbite after 10 minutes of outdoor exposure. Wouldn’t that be an OSHA violation to knowingly expose employees to hazardous working conditions?

  7. This “Chris Johnson” dude at Southwest is a true genius – threaten to terminate your people when you don’t have enough of them to begin with. Particularly because they can immediately get another job at most airlines. United is no doubt thrilled.

    I’m sure this brilliant style of leadership is why Southwest has this problem at all. Case example for the textbooks at Harvard School of Business.

  8. My job randomly denies vacation days last minute, even if I am in the “guaranteed book”.

    They used to require a doctors note to return to work, that stopped once they figured out they were paying sick time and paying for a doctor visit to get the note.

    Now it’s pattern callout, we get 6 sick days a year but if I call out twice on a Wednesday in a calendar year I get a write up. Yep, 6 sick days and a 5 day work week. Some companies are just toxic.

  9. My wife flew back to the US on Jan 2 last year on Southwest, connecting in DEN. Honestly, I don’t think this problem is new, based on what she described to me (lack of rampers leading to delays that caused crew timeouts, and subsequently cascading issues both through the network and particularly at DEN).

    This level of cold seems likely to be the new normal every 1-4 years, so I’d suggest we better prepare for it. Do rampers need outdoor heating stations? Nearby indoor facilities to retreat to between work functions? Whatever the answer, threatening employees with loss of their jobs is horrible in general, and especially stupid in this labor market.

    Southwest management gets a solid thumbs down on this one. Bad moves.

    FWIW, my wife ended up driving from DEN to our home some 10 hours away by car.

  10. Maybe consider on site medical evaluations at the airport with a heated office or medical trailer, or home visits for employees reporting illness. If you pay the medical staff a holiday bonus rate, there will be people willing to work for a variety of reasons.
    Have flu, Covid, strep tests on site before they see the provider. Illness gets treated, non-illness scammers potentially identified. Less people likely to call in sick, less paperwork, less costly, community resources such as urgent care, ER, office providers not overwhelmed.

  11. There is a way to stop the doctors note policy. You use two or three more days to get the note. After a while they see it was not a smart policy at all.

  12. Having the wrong clothing in -30 weather when moving from stationary to possibly sweating can be dangerous. But it’s easy to stay warm if you know how to dress (no cotton ever), buy the expensive clothes, and peel off layers before sweating.

  13. Sometimes it’s not just the employer’s fault. Airlines are a 365-day-a-year profession and often 24 hours a day. Employees know this going in and new ones soon understand as newbies they are not getting any holidays off any time soon. So they call in sick. In the modern world with its, why should I have to earn seniority attitude, I am sure more people call in sick.

    So with the cold and needing twice as many people in order to rotate every person calling in sick hit even harder.

  14. It’s a shame people don’t want to work any more.

    They should consider themselves lucky just to have a job.

  15. Maybe they should pay their Ramp Agents & Flight Attendants a liveable wage…especially considering their pilots are paid $300k+

  16. Sounds like United will certainly hire the best Southwest ramp workers at DEN…with only one interview question:

    Wanna get away???

  17. I see that the negative spewing morons posting here have all the answers. Do you idiots really think that Southwest wants to lose the revenue they lose when they can not fly? Do you think they want negative feedback for not being able to fly? Southwest does not control the weather. Southwest can not make people come to work.

  18. @George Taylor it’s honestly hilarious you are trying to blame the airline for your horrible lack of planning. They have been offering change waivers for several days, since 12/20 at least. This one is on your dumb ass

  19. This may be a larger SW issue – Portland Maine – flights canceled today due to lack of crew. The one remaining flight had been delayed nearly 8 hours and for all I know is still sitting in Portland. Gate agents computers were at a near standstill with the entire system being overrun with rebookings. Cloudless beautiful day in Portland today – weather was not a factor.

  20. I flew Southwest DEN-HOU yesterday. Flight ended up delayed 3 1/2 hours. They are having more problems than just Rampers. The line to self-check bags was an hour long because most of the kiosks were not working. I took pictures. Once you were able to access a kiosk, you had to get in another 45min line to physically drop the tagged bags off. I feared I’d miss my flight and sent my wife+kids ahead so they’d make it home.

    They updated the delay while I was in security. The gate agent was probably over sharing, but kept updating us – originally they were waiting on a co-pilot and flight attendant, so we didn’t board because they didn’t want to make us wait on the plane when we could wait in the airport. Once they solved the crew issue, we boarded but after an hour onboard they announced ‘a miscommunication with ground crew – they weren’t told to load the luggage on the plane, but they were sending two crews to speed it up.’ After that announcement it took another hour for the luggage (sitting next to plane) to be loaded, then the tow truck assigned to our gate ‘ran out of fuel’ so that added more time. Finally some passengers demanded to deplane, so the crew needed updated paperwork which took a few minutes.

    It was cold, but sunny yesterday afternoon. Weather was not the issue as daylight flights for other airlines were fine. Southwest did cancel their Chicago flight last-minute at the gate next to us, and had cancelled their early and late (non-daylight) flights early yesterday morning.

    I sent an email detailing our experience and Southwest responded with a $100 voucher for both my wife and myself (kids were companions).

  21. Was to fly from Den to Fll today 12/24or that was the plan. Flight was late 2 hours leaving Den. Arrived at MCI waited and waited flight canceled to FLL No one to tell u what is going on and website is useless. Was stranded at MCI. Rented a car and driving back to Denver now. Will not be with family Christmas

  22. Paul P. hits the nail on the head. Denver has had subzero temps for decades, and over the past decades we haven’t seen this rate of cancellations as we have these past several days, mostly caused by staff calling in “sick”. Don’t like your job get another line of work. The rank and file employees have as much responsibility to the success of the airlines as do the management and C level executives. There’s plenty of ways that ramp employees can and should be suited up that prevent frostbite, that could allow services to continue. The employees calling in “sick” show they have no allegiance to the customers they are there to serve. Atrocious behavior. I generally like Southwest Airlines, and hope they can correct their ship, even if it means ridding the employee ranks of those who feel entitled without regard to customer service.

  23. My flight got cancelled on Friday by SW. I was momentarily upset just because if they knew they were having issues they should have hit the reset button sooner. I was on my way to the airport when I received the text. Thank goodness I did not get to the airport b/c it was a worse than a zoo there! I immediately stopped boarding the taxi and got back inside the hotel lobby and started looking for another hotel to book since the hotel I was at was booked. 30 minutes later many rooms had flown off the radar. 1 hr later all hotels in my zone area were booked. Thanks to the ongoing news I was able to be proactive. I had been keeping up with the weather and SW thanks to the news and great blogs I follow. The real disappointment is that SW should have cancelled my flight by Thursday night not so close to the departure. I had been looking ahead to “what are my options to rebook” and knew the earliest would be 3 days later and yup that is what it is! The whole airline industry needs to do a reset. The sooner you hit that button the sooner you clean the mess.

  24. …Failure to comply will result in immediate termination… Well, Southwest, your DEN operations are going to get a whole lot worse really quick!

  25. The other part of the problem is baggage on cancelled flights. After sitting on plane for over two hours on the 23rd, and then flight cancelled -a full flight with all bags are eventually forwarded to the destination of the airport I could not get to. Christmas holidays and 900 bags sitting randomly at MCI and Phoenix. Now processing them filling out reports in long lines one or two at time in KC. I finally flew out Christmas morning, its now Monday and my bags are still in Phoenix. They haven’t been sent to MCI yet. I hope they are located before I fly home. I hope the pilots appreciated their holiday time off with out being troubled by the number of people they negatively affected nationally with no association to there problem.

  26. Most if not all of this new working attitude stems from the ridiculous “we’ll pay you more to stay home and play video games” Covid policy of March – October 2020. As my 6th grade teacher once answered my question “why don’t we just print more money and give it to poor people” with “what would then motivate the bagel maker to get up at 2 AM and bake for others” Its as simple as that. You’re going to reap just what you sow… – Lou Reed, Perfect Day

  27. They are absolutely a disaster and they treat their staff just as bad as they treated their customers. #southwestairlines Our one attendant was about cry because she had no support from corporate, all systems were down, no way of knowing where are bags were, but stuck in there. She and the baggage claim supervisor were the only two to stick around to help 5 full flights of passengers in a major airport (lucky to have them!)

    Their lack of communication is absurd. We still haven’t got a cancellation email or text, but they keep sending us texts that are flight is delayed, even though we had our bags returned to us late last night. The only reason we new had to find our bag is from a passenger who said they went to baggage claim and one person was there who said he would try.

    There are 391 Domestic Airlines businesses in the US, SW accounted for 50% of the cancellations this holiday.

    READ BELOW if you are about to fly SW.

    95% of all SW cancellations last Thursday and Friday were due to lack of Pilots.

    Lost Baggage Article

    Denver Flight from Tampa lands in Denver and makes all customers stay on the plane because it had to go back to Tampa due to a lack of perssonel.

    Article about how it treats it employees
    Southwest Declares Emergency In Denver, No One To Work The Ramp

    Denver Workers Quit

  28. You have it backwards. You make it sound like record sick calls led to an extreme policy. The extreme policy is what caused people to walk off the job.

  29. The issue with all the airlines is, many, many employees are new. Most have been with their airline for 12, 6 months or less. Many have not even earned PTO, so with the cold temps, low pay, low to no seniority,…well it is very easy to just call in sick. Companies have taken the attitude that plenty of people are attracted to work for $14-15 per hour. That this proper compensation? When fast food restaurants are now starting at $17.50/hour or more? This is an issue because ramp employees do perform tasks that are safety related. With working all kinds of weird hours/schedules and in sub zero temps…it is very easy for these new employees to just say screw it, and quit.

    I think the place to put blame is management. Senior management. That Chris Johnson is VP of Ground Operations at Southwest. Do you think he was on location at Denver International? Zero chance, he was at DEN! He was probably at home with his family! Johnson and others made decisions with scheduling and pay. What they did months ago, set up WN for the debacle they had in Denver. Don’t even bother thinking that Johnson is going to pay any price for what happened. He is a 30 year employee and nothing will happen to him. But he and many others are the real ones that need to held accountable for what happened in Denver. Today, WN cancelled 70% of their flights. Today Delta cancelled 9%, United 5%, and AA cancelled less than 1%. In the last couple days over half of all flights cancelled by all airlines (foreign carriers as well), were Southwest. Southwest CEO Bob Jordan, stated, “Part of what we’re suffering is a lack of tools”. What a tool of a fool! Most of the carriers scheduled less flights on Christmas Eve and Day, because they thought that demand wasn’t there. No it was more like let’s try to save some money, and run less flights. That alone, made recovery harder because aircraft and crews, in many instances, were not even working.

    Blaming the employees, and some on here are blaming passengers for not rescheduling, GET REAL! Christmas is peak travel. Only to be exceeded by Thanksgiving travel. There is no flex with this. People travelling 2, 3 days before Christmas Eve is the way, people travel every year for Christmas. The people who need to be blamed are senior management of Southwest. The lack of contingencies and overall holiday planning is frightening.

  30. My husband works for UPS on the ramp at their 2nd largest air hub in Rockford IL. It was just as cold here during the same weather event on Dec 22nd -24th and guess where his a$$ was while dozens of flights arrived in the middle of the night. Out on the ramp doing his job, with frequent breaks to warm up inside and the proper outdoor gear.

    That being said…according to many industry people Southwest has been ignoring advice to update their IT infrastructure for over a decade because of the danger of a situation just like this one.

  31. Even with all of these problems, WN continues to over-expand. Denver, apparently, is slated for a HUGE increase in traffic. Seems a little counterproductive to me.

  32. LOL at people like Elmo that are still rolling out the “no one wants to work” trope. The temps around the country have been brutal and I can guarantee that no amount of money would convince Elmo to go out on the ramp for an 8 hour shift and move bags around.

    This whole mess is a matter of SWA simply not being prepared for a weather system that had been predicted for at least the week prior.

  33. Denver had horrible, cold weather for ONE DAY, Thursday Dec 22nd. By the time we tried to fly on the 24th it was so warm any snow left was slush. Not sure how you can blame 10 days of disrupted flights (as of now) on one day of bad weather. There’s more to this story when other airlines in Denver canceled very few flights and SWA about 2/3.

Comments are closed.