Airlines cancel 17,000 flights due to severe winter weather but disruptions ease

Business

Aircraft are deiced at General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee
Reuters

Flight cancellations eased further on Monday but disruptions from severe winter weather across the U.S. lingered at the tail end of Christmas weekend.

Airlines have canceled more than 17,000 U.S. flights since Wednesday, according to FlightAware, as storms brought snow, ice, high winds and bitter cold around the country, derailing air travel from coast to coast. Those conditions slowed down ground crews as they faced severe conditions at airports.

Carriers are likely to detail the costs of the disruptions when they report results next month, if not earlier.

Southwest Airlines was especially hit hard by the winter storms over the holiday travel period, along with other issues including unexpected fog in San Diego and staffing shortages at a fuel vendor in Denver, the carrier’s chief operating officer told staff.

Southwest had been canceling many flights proactively in an effort to stabilize its operation, COO Andrew Watterson said. From Wednesday through Saturday, about a quarter of Southwest’s flights were canceled, and two-thirds were delayed, according to FlightAware data.

The airline apologized to employees for the chaos, which left many struggling to get a hold of crew scheduling services, making it harder to get reassignments or make other changes, or get hotel rooms. Southwest also offered flight attendants working over the holiday extra pay.

“Part of what we’re suffering is a lack of tools,” Southwest CEO Bob Jordan said in a message to staff on Sunday. “We’ve talked an awful lot about modernizing the operation, and the need to do that. And Crew Scheduling is one of the places that we need to invest in. We need to be able to produce solutions faster.”

Airlines often cancel flights proactively during bad weather to avoid having planes, crews and customers out of place, problems that can make recovery from a storm more difficult.

Carriers also planned smaller schedules for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day compared with the days leading up to the holidays, making it harder for them to rebook travelers on other flights, and bookings had spiked.

Passengers check in at the Delta counter at Detroit Metro Airport in Romulus, Michigan, on December 22, 2022. 
Jeff Kowalsky | AFP | Getty Images

On Monday, more than 1,700 flights were canceled and 2,200 more were delayed, down from nearly 3,200 canceled flights and 7,700 delayed U.S. flights on Sunday.

Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, United Airlines, JetBlue Airways and Alaska Airlines were among the other carriers affected by the weather.

An American Airlines spokeswoman said the “vast majority of our customers affected by cancellations were able to be reaccommodated.”

Passengers also faced delayed luggage, however.

Bill Weaver, 41, said he, his wife and five children drove from Wichita, Kansas to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport for a Friday flight to Cancun after their connecting flight into the American Airlines hub was canceled. The American Airlines flight to Cancun arrived on time but their luggage didn’t get to in Cancun until Monday, and hadn’t made it to their hotel by mid-morning, so they had to spend hundreds of dollars to buy clothing and other essentials at their hotel.

Weaver, who works in software sales, said he used to travel frequently.

“I’m used to missing bags and things happen but this is by far the worst I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Extreme cold and high winds slowed ground operations at dozens of airports. More than half of U.S.-based airlines’ flights arrived late from Thursday through Saturday, with delays averaging 81 minutes, according to FlightAware.

“Temperatures have fallen so low that our equipment and infrastructure have been impacted, from frozen lav systems and fuel hoses to broken tow bars,” said United Airlines message to pilots on Saturday. “Pilots have encountered frozen locks when trying to re-enter the jet bridge after conducting walk arounds.”

The FAA said it had to evacuate its tower at United hub Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey because of a leak on Saturday.

JetBlue, meantime, offered flight attendants triple pay to pick up trips on Christmas Eve due to staffing shortages.

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