With (mostly) clear skies, Southwest cancels thousands of flights

With the Christmas rush and the worst of a historic winter storm that crippled nationwide travel in the rearview mirror, Southwest Airlines melted again Monday with more than 2,500 cancellations and counting.

Other airlines were struggling on Monday, but clearly something was seriously wrong with Southwest. The Dallas-based airline had canceled 2,700 flights as of Monday afternoon — two-thirds of its full schedule for the day, according to data from FlightAware.com. As delays turn into cancellations, that number is expected to continue to climb. And Southwest seemed to be crumbling under the strain: Its customer phone line returned a busy signal Monday afternoon, while travelers reported glitchy, even unusable experiences on its app and website.

It comes after a series of near-unprecedented disruptions to air travel in the United States: airlines canceled 15,200 flights from Thursday to Sunday and delayed more than 30,000 flights, as a severe winter storm swept across the country , according to an analysis of data from FlightAware.

But now it’s the snowball effect in action: things are going from bad to worse for Southwest. And given how badly things are going for Southwest, it may be days before they can actually deliver reliable on-time flights. Case in point: On Monday evening, Southwest had already proactively canceled nearly 2,500 flights scheduled for Tuesday and another 2,000 for Wednesday.

Southwest is not the first airline to collapse this year, far from it. Delta struggled several times early in the summer before leveling off. Spirit canceled thousands of flights during a week-long saga last summer. But it’s much worse: Southwest carries at least four times as many passengers as Spirit.

However, the problems are essentially the same. Airlines that shrank during the worst of the pandemic were unable to grow fast enough to return to 100%. When things go wrong, they walk away really fake.

Throw a nationwide storm into the mix that has crippled travel during the busiest days of the year, and airlines can’t catch up. Days of delays and cancellations have left planes and crews irrelevant or unable to take additional shifts after hitting their monthly maximum limits. And the planes were already full for starters, leaving airlines with few options to rebook passengers when things go wrong.

Photo courtesy of Bill Wilt on Flickr

When airlines crash, it’s never just a problem but a perfect storm, and that’s what happened with Southwest last week. Two of its largest airports in Denver (DEN) and Chicago-Midway (MDW) were battered by the storm. Add to that an unusually unpleasant cold and flu season as well as the ongoing spread of COVID-19 cases, and having the employees the airline needs to get planes off and on on time is a major challenge.

As things went from bad to worse, Southwest finally issued a public statement Monday afternoon conceding the “unacceptable” disturbances, largely due to the winter storm. But on a day when it canceled two-thirds of its flights, the airline used the headline: “Southwest Airlines recovers from operational challenges.”

“With consecutive days of extreme winter conditions on our network behind us, the continued challenges are having a significant impact on our customers and employees, which is unacceptable,” the airline said. “We anticipate further changes with an already reduced level of flights heading into the next New Year holiday travel period.”

aware of southwest flight

While Southwest was the poster child for Monday’s issues, they are not alone. By and large, airlines were offering huge overtime payouts in hopes of keeping flights on time – and some fared better than others. Despite the ship’s righting earlier this year after weeks of crisisDelta canceled about 250 flights for the day Monday and delayed another 650 after its hub in Atlanta (ATL) experienced dangerously low temperatures over the weekend.

On the plus side, American Airlines was doing its best to overturn its reputation for poor on-time performance. The airline performed better than most U.S. carriers over the holidays and had canceled just a dozen flights as of Monday afternoon.

What to do if you’re flying this week

Knowledge and preparation is power right now. Here’s what to keep in mind if you’re traveling in the days and weeks ahead:

  • Supposed to fly with Southwest this week? Book an emergency flight on another airline…and do it now. It will likely be expensive, but it’s a safer bet than Southwest. If (and likely when) Southwest eventually cancels your flight, you can get a refund.
  • Watch for weather deviations which will allow you to change your flight a few days earlier (or later) without paying change fees or big fare differences
  • Monitor your airline and your flight: look FlightAware.com in the days leading up to your trip to see if your airline is in trouble. And use an app like fickle to keep an eye on your flight in case of sudden changes or cancellations.
  • Know your rights! Even if the weather is the culprit, an airline that cancels your flight allows you to cancel your entire booking and get a full refund – not just a voucher with your airline.
  • Delineate backup plans: turn on Google Flights to find an alternative way to get you where you need to go.
  • Exhaust your options to reach your airline: Don’t just wait in line at the airport. Pick up the phone, send a direct message via Twitteror text your airline, too.
  • Book an early flight: This is your best chance of an on-time departure – the data doesn’t lie.

Read the rest of our tips for flying smoothly when things go wrong!


The Southwest is in the midst of an unprecedented collapse – possibly the worst in over a decade, if ever.

Canceling 2,700 flights in a single day is unacceptable. But given the scale of these problems, there’s no guarantee things will get any better soon flying southwest.

Main photo courtesy of Chris Lundberg on Flickr

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