Southwest chaos continues, feds press carrier to compensate passengers

In Atlanta, more than four dozen Southwest arrivals and departures canceled Wednesday with more likely in coming days
Travelers flying with Southwest print tags for their checked bags on Wednesday, December 28, 2022, at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta.  Southwest airlines canceled over 2,000 flights. CHRISTINA MATACOTTA FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Travelers flying with Southwest print tags for their checked bags on Wednesday, December 28, 2022, at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. Southwest airlines canceled over 2,000 flights. CHRISTINA MATACOTTA FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Much of Southwest Airlines’ schedule into and out of Atlanta remained disrupted Wednesday after a meltdown of the low-cost carrier’s operations created chaos at airports across the nation. And the ripple effects for travelers could last for some time.

More than two dozen Southwest departures and another two dozen arrivals were listed as canceled Wednesday morning on the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport website. Nationwide, Dallas-based Southwest canceled more than 2,500 flights Wednesday, or nearly two-thirds of its schedule, according to

The carrier has canceled about 11,000 flights Monday through Wednesday, FlightAware data show, and more than 9-of-10 canceled flights in the U.S. Wednesday were Southwest flights.

Thursday isn’t looking much better. More than 2,300 flights, or about 60% of Southwest’s schedule, had already been canceled for Thursday, according to data from FlightAware as of noon Wednesday.

Southwest has come under intense federal scrutiny and on Wednesday opened a portal for passengers to request a refund as lawmakers demanded the airline compensate customers for travel disruptions.

A massive winter storm pummeled the U.S. with Arctic temperatures and buried parts of the country in ice and snow, creating havoc for airlines and passengers over the holiday weekend. Atlanta avoided the white stuff, but the frigid temperatures caused water-pressure issues at Hartsfield-Jackson that impacted restrooms and some concessionaires, while a broken pipe forced the closure of a gate on Concourse E.

Hartsfield-Jackson spokesman Andy Gobeil on Wednesday said officials are monitoring the situation but that water pressure had improved, though some restrooms remain affected. “A handful” of concessionaires remain temporarily closed, he said, though food service is available 24-7 on all concourses and 95% of concessionaires are open.

Gobeil urged travelers to follow instructions of their airlines and to follow the social media channels of their carriers and the Atlanta airport for the latest information.


Most airlines by Wednesday had recovered from the winter storm. U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told “Good Morning America” Wednesday morning that the rest of the U.S. air travel network reported just 4% of flights canceled.

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, the top carrier at Hartsfield-Jackson, had canceled about a dozen flights nationwide by midday. Delta has instituted fare caps through Jan. 2 in its markets that overlap with Southwest, for passengers whose Southwest flights were canceled and need to book an alternate flight.

The initial winter storm-driven disruptions for Southwest snowballed into a network-wide emergency, with displaced flight crews, hundreds of thousands of stranded passengers and untold numbers of checked bags stuck at airports across the country. Southwest has attempted to reset its operations and reposition crews and aircraft to return to normal operations, but it will likely take many more days to accomplish.

Asked on GMA if the term “meltdown” is an accurate descriptor of what’s happened with Southwest, Buttigieg agreed.

“In this case it’s the only word I can think of describe what is happening at Southwest Airlines,” he said. “We are past the point where they can say this is a weather-driven issue.”

Though the Southwest debacle started as a weather-driven event, Buttigieg said, “what this indicates is a system failure and they need to make sure these stranded passengers get to where they need to go and are provided adequate compensation,” including refunded air fares, ground transportation, meals and hotels.

Buttigieg said he reminded Southwest CEO Bob Jordan of the carrier’s written commitments to passengers and said Jordan indicated to him they would go above and beyond to serve stranded passengers.

“We will mount an extraordinary effort to make sure they are meeting their obligations,” Buttigieg said.

‘I’m truly sorry’

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that problems were foreshadowed in a Dec. 21 internal memo warning of staffing shortages in Denver as the storm approached, bringing dangerously cold conditions. A Southwest executive declared a “state of operational emergency” because of absences of vital ground crew, who park planes, move bags and handle other key jobs.

“When you’re dealing with subzero temperatures, driving winds and ice storms, you can’t expect to schedule planes as if every day is a sunny day with moderate temperatures and a gentle breeze,” said Randy Barnes, president of the Transport Workers Union of America Local 555, which represents Southwest ground crews. “Many of our people have been forced to work 16 or 18 hour days during this holiday season. Our members work hard, they’re dedicated to their jobs, but many are getting sick, and some have experienced frostbite over the past week.”

Antiquated information technology and crew scheduling systems have compounded problems across Southwest’s network. Stranded Southwest flight crews complained of being on hold for hours with their own airline to book hotel rooms for federally mandated rest and to receive their next duty assignments.

Jordan apologized to passengers and Southwest crew in a video posted to the airline’s website.

“I want everyone who is dealing with the problems we’ve been facing, whether you haven’t been able to get to where you need to go or you’re one of our heroic employees caught up in a massive effort to stabilize the airline, to know is that we’re doing everything we can to return to a normal operation,” Jordan said in a video post to Southwest’s website. “And please also hear that I’m truly sorry.”

“… We’re focused on safely getting all of the pieces back into position to end this rolling struggle,” he said.

Consumer groups have demanded new reforms to protect passengers. U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) issued a statement Tuesday calling for stronger enforcement of passenger protections and allowing passengers whose flights are canceled to have their tickets transferred at no charge to another airline with seats available.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., issued a statement Tuesday saying the Senate committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation would be “looking into the causes of these disruptions and its impact to consumers.” She added that consumers “deserve strong protections, including an updated consumer refund rule.”

U.S. Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., on Tuesday also called for Southwest to compensate passengers for avoidable flight cancellations over the holiday period, including for rebooked tickets, hotel, meal and transportation reimbursement and other compensation for disruption to their holiday plans.

“Southwest is planning to issue a $428 million dividend next year — the company can afford to do right by the consumers it has harmed,” Markey and Bluementhal said in a joint statement.

-Staff writer Kelly Yamanouchi contributed to this report.