The Southwest Meltdown Continues, I Failed To Follow My Own Advice

Southwest Airlines isn’t a niche carrier, for many years they’ve been the largest carrier of domestic airline passengers in the U.S. They may only be the fourth biggest airline, but that’s because their international route network is so limited.

So when Southwest melts down over Christmas, it’s a big deal. And even with Christmas over, the mess continues. Southwest has already cancelled a third of its flight systemwide again today. On Sunday they were closer to cancelling half. Scenes from their terminals have been brutal.

Even when weather disruptions end, planes are out of position. Crew are out of position. And Southwest’s CEO told employees they don’t yet have the tech to recover quickly. Nowhere is that more evident than when employees, ready to work, are trying to figure out where to go to get a night’s rest before working the next day, or address issues with their trip so they can work.

I’m supposed to fly Southwest tomorrow. My wife preferred the Southwest flight time. As a ConciergeKey facing potential irregular operations I’d have been much better off on American.

  • A priority phone line more expedited than what I’ll get from Southwest A-List
  • A club lounge (outstanding service in Austin!) for in-person assistance.

While the American Airlines ‘next flight guarantee’ for ConciergeKey members is limited to two passengers, and we’re three, I’d have an easier time getting re-routed because I’d have an easier time getting someone to help me. Southwest, on the other hand, had its phone system melt down.

I did not follow my own advice, oh sure at the time I had a reason. It’s a good idea, in a world without change fees (excluding basic economy), to buy a backup reservation on a different airline. Even if I’d planned to fly Southwest, I could have booked an American itinerary also and just cancelled it if things worked out as planned.

Fares were reasonably priced, but mileage prices quite high. I didn’t want to spend the miles on the backup, even though I have plenty of miles, and I didn’t want to spend the cash. That’s silly for me of course since whether American or Southwest I’ll use travel credit in the future for my wife and daughter. I just saw the ticket cost times three, the hassle of managing more travel credit, and see flights between two warm-ish destinations and rolled the dice. Of course now there’s no reasonable options to even purchase on another airline.

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 »

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  1. I fully agree with your strategy of the “backup flight”, Gary. No real reason not to do it on miles, when they’re pretty much refundable; Now that you can get flight credits pretty much every airline, even cash tickets are worth considering as a backup flight. At this point, I try to make backup flights for any time I have a “critical” need to get somewhere. The “backup flight” has saved my bacon in the past.

    Although I’ve done exactly what you did in the past and delayed or not bothered due to price or whatever (i.e. laziness). Haven’t been caught without a flight yet, but someday I may regret it if I skip…

    I also have begun to take any incoming “weather event” more seriously in terms of how it may impact travel plans.

  2. As of 3 pm EST today, Flight Aware shows that 63% of Southwest flights are already cancelled for today. This is an operational meltdown of epic proportions. AA has zero percent cancellations today.

  3. Don’t be f do I hard on yourself. The a priori probability of AA doing so much better was almost zero.

  4. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Southwest in this much of a meltdown operationally
    But it left a lasting impression that despite what they do well they can no longer manage their business during holidays, winter months/ or during any severe weather events
    They are simply no longer fit to run an airline based on there are always going to be the rough patches.How do you recover from them and have a plan b in place is what matters of which they had next to none
    They are irresponsible and should face severe repercussions

  5. @Dwondermeant — It seems like every airline eventually has an incident like this one (although perhaps not THIS bad). They should be honest with the public about what is happening, profusely apologize, try to make things right, and work to make sure it never happens again. Hopefully, they get their act together ASAP.

  6. Help me understand – I Don’t freaking get It.- Maybe its unfortunate & maybe its abject willful ignorance- I have Zero empathy for anyone who made the decision to go to an airport & fly to any destination East of Southern California & West of Miami.. How is it the least bit surprising that thousands of lemmings were stuck in hubs unable to complete second legs of flights or secure connective flights. And then whine , moan, complain & blame airlines for the discomfort & challenge of attempting to travel into the face of an EXTREMELY well publicized weather phenomena. I say they all earned it & probably are likely to do it again as the lemming attitude & propensity to blame everyone else for their personal willful abject ignorance & poor decision making process seems to have reached pandemic proportions. Stand by for frivolous lawsuits from this crowd.

  7. @Franklin – I’ve been reading reports of people on canceled inter-island flights in Hawaii, being forced to purchase expensive tickets on Hawaiian. Sounds like there’s no escaping this meltdown.

  8. I spent 9 hours and 46 minutes on a single call yesterday (Christmas) waiting for an agent only to be disconnected. They gave up.

  9. @Gary: Friends don’t let friends fly Southworst. Look on the bright side, you’re at home.
    I was at PHX today at about 1330 putting my wife on an AA flight to LHR. The Southworst desks are just across the concourse and I overheard this on their public address (pretty much verbatim):
    “If you are on a SWA flight that has been cancelled, we cannot accommodate you at the airport. Go home (which presupposes stranded passengers live in AZ) and re-book there. If you insist on staying here it will be five hours in line and then it will be four days before they can get you out.”
    Such a thing raises so many questions but at the end of the day, yes we know there’s been weather, but SWA’s competitors seem to be, at least, coping. How fragile must their infrastructure to collapse so like a house of cards?
    There’s a reason I *NEVER* fly SWA. They suck, frankly. Cattle car airlines. But I would have to hope that the SWA Board goes through the executive ranks there without mercy. There’s no excuse for this.

  10. My daughter had a flight on SWA on the 22nd. She has been rebooked five times. This last time they didn’t even notify her her flight was canceled and did not rebook her. We waited on hold five hours to speak to someone. And the app was down most of the afternoon. They have lost her luggage because the first time they canceled they wouldn’t even let her retrieve her luggage. I have been a loyal SWA customer for years. No more. After dealing with this nightmare when all other airlines seem to have recovered, I have no grace to give them. There should definitely be repercussions after this fiasco.

  11. @Beachfan – sorry barely legible troll but the facts say American had 12 total flights cancelled today or “almost zero” percent of their schedule.
    What’s the probability that you infertile? For all of our sakes

  12. I never buy backup flights. This has worked out fine until earlier this month when UA cancelled all flights into Aspen (ostensibly due to weather). Cost us an arm and a leg for car service from DEN as we didn’t want to be charged for 2 nights at St Regis

    But that’s a risk we knowingly took, just as Gary did this week. Usually it works out, but not always

  13. My son has been sitting in the crew lounge at MDW all day…..crews from all over the nation are suck in Chicago …..what a mess!

  14. It is very hard to watch a formerly proud company be humbled so badly and take so many millions of people’s plans and a lot of collateral money for vacations and associated travel expenses down the drain.
    Lots of people here seem to fail to grasp that every airline has had some form of meltdown. What makes this unique is that Southwest grew so large and managed to overcome so many other meltdowns that they really failed to address their operational problems.
    Southwest continues to operate like a small operation without the sophistication that other airlines have been forced to address.
    And, as I previously noted, the Wall Street Journal reports that FAA inspectors believe that the relationship between the FAA and Southwest is still being protected by high level FAA officials that are not imposing the same standards on Southwest that other airlines have to meet.
    If there is reason for the government to step in, it is to get to the bottom of why Southwest hasn’t corrected so many problems – both in the public eye and behind the scenes and why the FAA has been unwilling to force Southwest to manage its operation – from a safety perspective – to the same standard as other airlines.
    I strongly suspect that when you get to the bottom of those questions, it will become apparent why Southwest’s operations have continued to be operated so “hot” and without the margins that would have caused them to recognize the wheels were coming off much earlier and put corrective steps in place before this disaster unfolded.

    This mess will take months for Southwest to clean up, they will lose millions of customers – and not just the ones shopping for the lowest price, and Southwest’s finances will be much more damaged than alot of people imagine.

  15. This is very unfortunate. I want to proud airline, struggling.

    I wish I could say that this was an isolated incident for Southwest, but it seems that they have an “operational meltdown“ every six months or so. October, 2021, Did they have another one in June? Sometimes just a glitch with air traffic control in Jacksonville shuts down their entire system for days.

    It says something that American, facing the same challenge as a Southwest, cleaned up their act, and got back on schedule within a day or two, I have a feeling Southwest is going to be struggling for a week.

    At this time, I only fly Southwest, as far as I’m willing to drive, which, for me, is really only within Texas. Sorry Southwest, you’ve got a clean up your act.

  16. “If there is reason for the government to step in, it is to get to the bottom of why Southwest hasn’t corrected so many problems”

    Yes of course. Because we know our federal government is so well run, knows all, and can tell us how it should be run. The same people who for years can’t even carry out their basic responsibilities (think passing a budget)

  17. You have your backup strategy reversed. I only use Southwest as a backup carrier. Given the ability to cancel at the last minute, they provide good insurance for my primary flight on another carrier

  18. A former airline employee here and I won’t book on Southwest for one reason, and one reason only, no interline agreement. The same for Spirit and Frontier. The all save money by not having one among other strategies. So when thing go wrong, they can’t book you on another airline like American. You are there until they can get you out of there. Thats fine most of the time, until something like this happens. Stuck in PHX? To bad. American Airlines probably has seats to your destination going empty, but Southwest won’t book you on them because that costs them money, and you were too cheap to book American, which was not much more money.

    I booked my parents on a flight with AA, even though I could have saved $100 on Southwest, both non-stops. But I know if AA can’t get them there, they will be protected.

    As for this meltdown, this is epic. It is also an indication that they don’t have the technology to handle all of the issues from Aircraft routing and management, to crew scheduling, to passenger re-accommodation. But ALL of the airlines have these meltdowns. I remember when TWA had one back in the 90’s when I worked for them. How many airlines had meltdowns this last summer?

    I can tell you from experience that this is all about technology, and the lack up updating and upgrading it. It is also about logistics and experience. Seeing a problem before it becomes a problem and preventing it.

    Here is a suggestion for SW. Invest in technology so passengers can get on their phones and re-book themselves. The fact that they have to go through a person in any way is stupid these days. Also, to solve the current failure, no originating passengers. Offer them compensation to take a later flight on a later day or something to open up seats for your stranded passengers. You have a lot of passengers in que, get them taken care of before you take on more passengers.

    And if you are booked on Southwest over the next week, here is a suggestion, see about delaying your trip if you can. Or book on another airline and cancel your SW reservation, unless you were cheap and can’t, then you are just, well…..

  19. Don’t flatter yourself Dunn, Delta is the runner up here at a reputable second, trailing Southwest. Have you forgotten about Delta’s Hartsfield mess as well?? Seems to me your beloved Delta does not have its act together for an airline that has a reputation for “never canceling a single flight “ now, does it??

  20. @ david — Sorry, it is time for the airlines to be held responsible, and no one can do that besides the federal government. The prior administration gave them like $70 billion in return for nothing. Time for the airlines to pay up and put customers first.

  21. Gary, you have millions of AA miles, that quite frankly you will never spend, especially if you are not willing to book a back up flight over the holidays. You are in need of an intervention.

  22. I agree with UnionTHAT. SW, Frontier and Spirit are fine when things are fine. When anything goes wrong, you are on your own. If you really need to get somewhere, buy F on one of the majors. Then, if anyone gets there, you will.

    On Friday, my flight on UA was cancelled. They put me on a connecting flight and got me there only two hours late. One suitcase has gone missing, but I got to spend Christmas with family.

  23. @Franklin @Mark
    I was literally following my flight number 3 days in advance on FlightAware to understand is it going to be affected. The plane was being cycled between Hawaii, Bay Area, SoCal and LAS for all those days. Guess what? My flight SJC – ONT on that plain was canceled. The funniest thing was that FlightAware told me that 4 hours before the flight, while southwest app did not send even a single notification. It did not allow to change it either, but at least allowed to cancel. Now I’m mentally preparing to claw back 4 my EBCIs 🙂

  24. I only fly Southwest but I am intelligent enough NOT to fly during major holidays and during blizzards. All one has to do is look at history to note that seemingly ALL major flight interruptions occur during major holidays and winter storms/blizzards. Think about it…

  25. GPG,
    no other airline including Delta has lost operational control during these holidays – other than Southwest.
    Delta and other airlines have cancelled flights before the beginning of the day starts and then largely maintained that percentage throughout the day.
    Delta’s percentage of cancelled flights was very low before Christmas Eve and then spiked.
    As a percentage of flights cancelled. Alaska has far exceeded Delta.

    According to DOT data that has been released so far, year to date, Delta is still in best position for on-time and is better than average for cancellations. (DOT data obviously hasn’t been released for December for any airline).

    and I am certainly not relishing in anyone’s misfortune.

    and as Gary notes, American is the true standout in all of this. They had operational problems esp. at DFW earlier in the month but they have done very well during this storm.

    United has had regular groundstops for its own operations esp. at EWR which typically indicates that an airline knows they are in over their skis and have the sense to slow things down.

    Neither American or Delta have asked the FAA to groundstop their own flights during this whole crisis. They are managing their operations on their own.

    And no other airline has the reputation with FAA inspectors of being able to get away w/ things that Southwest clearly gets away with.
    Remember that it was within the last year that they finally started counting bags accurately enough as they were loaded on the plane to produce accurate weight and data records; other airlines have been doing that with scanners and, in Delta’s case RFID bag tags, for years.

    There needs to be some serious soul-searching both at Southwest’s headquarters andamong government regulators to ask why the “charm” of Southwest has allowed it to continue to repeat the same mistakes over and over again with each disaster getting worse, something no other airline has done.

  26. I doubt Southwest will pay much of a price for the meltdown. The majority of flyers continue to look only at the lowest price ticket. SW doesn’t invest in modern technology to save money. This is what the modern flyer wants. It continues to work for them.

  27. The US Dept. of Transportation has expressed its concerns about the way this is being handled – which means the sh*( has hit the fan.
    LUV is putting people in hotels – something they normally don’t do.
    This will cost them a half billion dollars.

  28. The staff at WN is overworked – when the VP of ground operations (Chris Johnson) sent a memo to the DEN ramp employees, we watched in slow motion the demise of their operation. Employee morale and mandatory OT on your days set off this implosion. The subsequent national weather issues were not a “massive problem” at the other U.S. carriers. Rumors at DEN estimated as many as 250 ramp employees quit after CJ’s memo. Start with firing, CJ! Offer back jobs without penalty to any WN employee that walked off after the “memo”.

    The employees need LUV – start with them and they will deliver the product that customer have been coming back to for years. People… will forget this ever happened and will be driven back to WN with the enticement of low fares – time and time again.

    Wage improvements, benefits, and contract language were just settled at WN – they are the highest paid airline staff in the industry. If you ask a friend of a friend – they’ll tell you some WN employees haven’t had a single day off for 2 months – forced OT on their days off; the new language says you can only mandatory 32 hours per month – unless there is an emergency, it doesn’t matter that your contractual wages will increase 25% over the next 4 years if they throw out fake emergencies.

  29. Sorry, it is time for the airlines to be held responsible, and no one can do that besides the federal government. The prior administration gave them like $70 billion in return for nothing. Time for the airlines to pay up and put customers first.

  30. SW relies on very thin staffing margins. This bomb cyclone weather event was predicted for days. If a traveler expected no delays over this holiday event, they are an idiot.

  31. Maybe I’m missing something, but Southwest’s “quick turnaround” operating model may not be the best practice when the weather gets really bad.

  32. United was excellent. They now offer video calls for customers. Found out my flight was going to be delayed for the next morning’s flight which would have caused me to miss my connections. Took less than five minutes to talk to an agent.

  33. I flew BDL-BWI-MKE for the holidays. When my BWI-MKE flight canceled my family thought I was crazy when I asked to be rerouted to MDW so we could drive up to Wisconsin, but I got in and I’m sure some of the people who waited in BWI are still there waiting….

  34. I am extremely disappointed in SWA. I booked my son and I a flight so we could attend my grandfather’s funeral. Not only did they cancel our flight but they canceled it in reverse. They canceled my return flight home and luckily I was able to get on another airline to make it home.
    An hour later they canceled my flight departing for the funeral.

    I searched and searched for another airline ticket, but nothing was available for under 1,000 because this is last minute. I cannot afford to pay close to 2,000 for my son and I to fly.

    I was able to get my money back on the other airline and got it canceled successfully.
    I read the message they sent me and it says I will NOT be refunded to my original payment method but I would get a future flight credit….ummm NO!
    I didn’t cancel my flight, they did and I want every cent back and will fight tooth and nail to get it. I don’t want future credit because I will never fly with them again. And it’s likely that I won’t fly before it expires anyways.

    For me this is more than being inconvenienced (not to downplay others stranded) I have to miss my grandfather’s funeral. He was my last remaining grandparent. This makes me sick.

    I should have never booked with them but decided to give them a second chance after I missed a connection because we were late arriving where I needed to connect. I spent $400 to get home on another airline and SWA was going to just leave me stranded in Atlanta. This was over a year ago and foolishly I thought things would be different.

    When making this reservation I was mourning his death and still am, this just adds salt to the wound.

    Shame on you SWA for leaving people stranded, treating your employees like garbage and having them sleep in airports. This is ridiculous!! You have no trouble taking peoples money and it’s now time to open your wallet and compensate those affected by your poor judgment and decision making.

    Why is this the only airline that is currently having this issue?!? I understand there is nasty weather. I was flying from SC to FL with a connection in Atlanta. No where near where the winter storm hit.

    I am going to fight for every cent and so should everyone else that has been affected.

  35. Libertarian/laissez-faire approaches to commercial aviation don’t work for highly advanced economies with air service concentrated in the hands of a few players.

    The notion of buying a “backup ticket” for all or even most trips is patently absurd. Absent defined consumer protections and government enforcement, American consumers will increasingly be left holding the bag, figuratively and literally.

  36. The SLT over at WN’s HQ on Lemmon Ave. are having heaves and hairballs. Kelly is joining in on the “fun” too. What a way to celebrate XMAS and end the year!

    As WN pushes out many posts, press releases, twitter feeds, etc., I see the word SAFETY oft repeated many, many times in the same release – but not much is being said in those releases as to when ops will return to a functional normal. The scary pics about all the loose luggage – true, WN and all airlines saw an uptick in checked luggage for the holiday(s) – gotta get all those presents home somehow.

    It’s been said that in some stations, WN can’t even obtain lodging for stranded crew, let alone stuck passengers.

    One airline you rarely heard having meltdowns was NWA whether at their cold weather hubs in the Twin Cities, Detroit and/or throughout their system. For all the names NWA was called (Northworst, Northwest Disorient, if you see a red tail…ride the rails, etc.) some of it well deserved, one thing NWA did very well – they were able to get those planes out of the gate, bags and freight loaded, crew in position, plane de-iced and into the air – even when the Twin Cities had snow up to your eyeballs, temps in the minus, minus range, and the rampers whose candy cane and bells were ready to fall off from frostbite! Even those old re-refurbed ex-North Central DC9’s somehow were able to fly in severe winter weather – some of those DC9’s were pushing nearly 40 years old!

    WN should go out and bring in some of those NWA ops people back from retirement to fix WN’s operational problems throughout their entire system – and not just the northern cold weather stations. WN has not allocated the capital and resources to manage severe cold weather ops – WN still thinks as if they are running an airline that serves just the southern tier cities. They have resisted the sorely needed investment for many years. It has finally caught-up with them. As to how WN positions its aircraft, what may have worked for them as a “maverick” back in the day isn’t working today, WN is really a mainline airline with hubs – even though WN will not acknowledge that DEN, MDW, BWI, LAS, PHX, DAL and HOUS are hubs. WN should start operating the airline with a hub mindset and eliminate all of the many flights with 7 to 8 stops.

    Even the WN Hawaii interisland flights are being cancelled, late. delays, etc. On December 26, 2022, 77% of flights originating in Maui were delayed or canceled, followed by Honolulu at 64%.

    For WN, it knows passengers memories will be short, and when people need to fly again next Christmas, WN will fill their planes. Firing Bob Jordan is NOT the mia culpa here – it will not solve anything. WN has to look inward at its operation and really decide what it wants to do – stay the same and face more meltdowns, or really think out of the box and implement ops that really work as the big boy airline they are today.

    WN’s actions of the past few days remind me of the incident at Three Mile Island…everything was ok…oh, but yeah, radiation has escaped and you may want to evacuate.

    WN has a Three Mile Island problem on its hands!


  37. @HeathrowGuy – there’s little that is laissez-faire about the U.S. airline industry, it is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the country

    And a backup ticket isn’t absurd for *many readers of this blog* who may have the miles to do it, with no cancel/redeposit fees.

  38. This is exactly what you get from deregulated airlines that can inflict pain on consumer without penalty (or even reimbursing them!) while they benefit from scheduling for fair skies.

    Time for the US to civilize and introduce customer protections with teeth.

  39. My flight on United left on time on the 26th at 7am landed 5 minutes early and my connection in IAH left the gate 5 minutes early and landed 20 minutes early. Great job UAL all my bags arrived with me, it could not have gone better, I was concerned but it was perfect.

  40. This sure resonates with me. We’re flight LAX-LHR (en route to RGX with strike-related cancellations and rebooking there but that’s another story). We live in the Bay Area.

    Got an award on As using AA miles (have a lot) as primary. Then they changed (months back) to be too early. Booked WN with a better time. Held both.

    For some reason (brain fart, senility, basic stupidity….) I cancelled the AA/AS flight on Sunday in favor of the WN flight since the timing was better. Yeah, you read that right.

    Yesterday had the “oh shit” realization and went to rebook. First, had to do on AS rather than AA (and we have many fewer AS miles) and SJC-LAX was only in F for 30K miles each (had been like 14.5K each in coach).

    So, it did work out just barely (these were the last two seats available for sale). Still kicking myself for the cancellation just to remind myself not to do it again.

    And, with WN, absolutely have a backup if getting there is important.


  41. Oh, and in the WN meltdown category:

    Got a text last night that the flight was cancelled (and had already seen on FlightAware). Still shows on the app as valid, as others have mentioned.

    And just after my last post here, got the email “What you’ll need for your Los Angeles trip.”

    Yeah, I know what I need….another reservation…sigh…


  42. Just like a data breach, the noise from the top is always the same…”we take this seriously, this is our top priority, we are sorry…blah…blah…blah…” The ones who get hit are the employees who get laid off for financial reasons, or don’t get raises. In the end, nothing changes and in two weeks it will be forgotten. It’s inexcusable on their part. I moved away from them years ago and haven’t looked back.

  43. You’re a ConciergeKey on AA and didn’t book with them during the holidays? Major holidays iare exactly when having elite status can make the difference between getting a seat or not. As a former AA reservations agent, I couldn’t even handle calls from ConciergeKey members. I had to call a special number, talk to the other agent and introduce the customer to the other agent before transferring the call. AA jumps through hoops for ConciergeKey customers. So few people ever attain that elite status….sounds like you’re starting to take that status for granted. Next year’s status is never guaranteed.

    Even with that 2 person limit for guaranteed flight availability, I’m sure the ConciergeKey desk would’ve been able to find an acceptable flight for the third person (or just cough up the miles you already had).

  44. To all those die hard SW Airlines fans; what letter and number do you get to queue up when to try rebooking?
    Blahhahhahhah !

  45. To Andy (the other one):

    You can get from San Jose to Ontario easily, using the Amtrak San Joaquins train/bus service. It will take 9-10 hours but how much time are you spending stuck in San Jose?

  46. @carletonm,

    Generally true. I even looked at Amtrak fir San Jose to LA area and anything that would get us there in time was sold out. Buses, too. Exceptional case, to be sure. But the backup gives peace of mind.


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