Southwest Airlines canceled thousands of flights on Tuesday and Wednesday, as the company struggled to recover from a deadly winter storm that has left holiday travelers stranded around the country.
The disruption to the company’s operation could continue for several days. At many airports where Southwest flies from, people resorted to sleeping on floors and waiting hours in line.
By around 11:30 a.m. Eastern time on Tuesday, more than 2,900 U.S. flights were canceled and more than 2,400 others delayed, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking service. Most of the cancellations — more than 2,500 of them — came from Southwest, which had already called off more than 60 percent of its flights for the day.
The airline has already canceled about 61 percent of its Wednesday flights and 14 percent of its Thursday flights, according to FlightAware. Shares of Southwest were down about 5 percent on Tuesday morning.
Aviation experts said the storm had a disproportionate impact on Southwest because the company configures its network in a very different way than other large airlines, like American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, do. Southwest, which has long prided itself on having good relations with its employees, has also recently struggled with staffing shortages that has heightened tensions between management and workers, said Robert W. Mann Jr., a former airline executive who now runs the consulting firm R.W. Mann & Company.
“Southwest clearly took the worst of this,” Mr. Mann said. “I’ve got to think it was cultural more than anything else.”
By late Monday and into Tuesday morning, Southwest was in damage-control mode, responding to angry and frustrated customers on Twitter. The airline repeatedly apologized for the cancellations and offered assistance through direct messages. The airline called its problems “unacceptable” and said it was doing all it can to move crews to where they were needed to restore its system.
“Our biggest issue at this time is getting our crews and our aircraft in the right places,” Chris Perry, a Southwest spokesman, said in an email.
The U.S. Department of Transportation said in a statement on Monday that it would look into the problems at Southwest, adding that it was concerned by the airline’s “unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays” and reports of poor customer service.
Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst at Atmosphere Research Group, said in an email that Southwest’s structure made it “uniquely vulnerable to weather problems, especially one as geographically extensive and as intensive as this storm has been.”
“I don’t recall seeing an airline experience such a massive operational problem as we are currently seeing at Southwest,” he said.
Most airlines operate on a “hub and spoke” basis, with planes returning to a hub airport after flying out to other cities — United hubs, for example, include airports in or near Newark, Houston and Denver. Southwest uses a “point-to-point” approach in which planes tend to fly from destination to destination without returning to a hub.
Hub and spoke airlines can shut down specific routes when bad weather hits, resuming operations when conditions improve. But Southwest can’t do that as easily without disrupting multiple flights and routes, he said.
David Vernon, an airline analyst at the financial firm Sanford C. Bernstein, said the system enabled higher use of planes during normal times but could cause cascading negative effects when things go wrong.
Making matters worse for customers: Southwest has a policy of not exchanging tickets with other airlines, so the airline could not rebook passengers on other flights, Mr. Harteveldt said. The debacle could force the airline to “buy back” frustrated customers with deeper discounts or conduct more promotions, he said.
No single region or airport bore the brunt of the cancellations. On Tuesday morning, more than 155 flights originating at Denver International Airport, or about 17 percent of its outgoing traffic, were canceled, and more than 115 flights, or about 38 percent, were canceled out of Chicago Midway International. More than 100 flights were also canceled at Harry Reid International in Las Vegas, and similar numbers were reported for Baltimore-Washington International, Dallas Love Field in Texas and Nashville International in Tennessee.
It’s been nearly a week since the winter storm began wreaking havoc for millions of travelers. The number of canceled flights began to rise last Thursday, when airlines called off more than 2,600 of them. The next day, nearly 6,000, or about a quarter of all U.S. flights, were canceled across the country. On Saturday, Christmas Eve, nearly 3,500 flights were canceled, and slightly fewer, at about 3,200, were cut from the schedules on Christmas Day.
The recovery is just beginning in areas like Buffalo, where at least 28 people died and roads remained impassable after the area’s worst winter storm in more than 50 years. A driving ban remained in place, and the snow was expected to finally end early Tuesday after accumulations of up 49 inches. Many streets have not been plowed, and vehicles remained stranded on roads, Gov. Kathy Hochul said on Monday.
Most power outages had been restored after affecting more than one million customers at the storm’s peak, but thousands remained without power in Maine and New York early Tuesday, according to poweroutage.us.
Steve Lohr contributed reporting.