Southwest cancels thousands more US flights on weather woes

President Biden called for airlines to be held accountable for cancellations, while the Transportation Department called them 'unacceptable'.

 A plane sits on the airfield as flight cancellations mount during a cold weather front as a weather phenomenon known as a bomb cyclone hits the Upper Midwest, at Midway International Airport in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., December 22, 2022. (photo credit: MATT MARTON/REUTERS)
A plane sits on the airfield as flight cancellations mount during a cold weather front as a weather phenomenon known as a bomb cyclone hits the Upper Midwest, at Midway International Airport in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., December 22, 2022.
(photo credit: MATT MARTON/REUTERS)

Southwest Airlines Co. on Tuesday led US airline cancellations again as the low-cost carrier struggled with harsh winter weather that grounded planes and left some workers unable to tend to jets, disrupting holiday travel for many.

The carrier had canceled 2,541 flights as of Tuesday 10 am ET or roughly two-thirds of its schedule, according to tracking website FlightAware, sending Southwest's shares down as much as 6.3% to a two-month low of $33.81.

A massive winter storm

An arctic blast and a massive winter storm dubbed Elliott swept over much of the United States in the lead-up to the Christmas holiday weekend, forcing Southwest to scrap more than 12,000 flights since Friday.

The company has a more aggressive schedule than most other US airlines and tighter turnaround times to accommodate its network that connects vast swathes of the country.

It earns most of its profits from flying domestically and unlike other large US carriers, Southwest relies more on point-to-point service instead of operating out of large hubs. That leaves its staff vulnerable to being stranded in case of disruptions.

 People wait in long lines for the Southwest Airlines check-in counters at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport where flight delays and cancellations stranded passengers in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S. December 26, 2022.  (credit: JOE RONDONE/THE COMMERCIAL APPEAL/USA TODAY VIA REUTERS) People wait in long lines for the Southwest Airlines check-in counters at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport where flight delays and cancellations stranded passengers in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S. December 26, 2022. (credit: JOE RONDONE/THE COMMERCIAL APPEAL/USA TODAY VIA REUTERS)

The airline's cancellations on Tuesday were 30 times more than those of Spirit Airlines, the carrier with the second-most cancellations. Additionally, Southwest called off 2,508 flights scheduled for Wednesday.

President Biden comments

The official POTUS handle for US President Joe Biden tweeted on Tuesday that his administration was working to ensure airlines were "held accountable."

Southwest's troubles have invited scrutiny from the US Transportation Department as well, which has said it would examine the widespread disruptions to determine if they were in the airline's control, branding them "unacceptable."

"We expect Southwest to call out the impact (from the storm) as it was worse than the industry and likely hurt earnings more than a 'normal' storm," Cowen analyst Helane Becker said in a note.

"Other airlines likely had manageable cancellations and delays, and actually appear to have recovered (in time to get everyone home)."

Staff could not stay outdoors for long due to the risk of frostbite, crimping Southwest's ability to fly, said Randy Barnes, president of TWU Local 555, a union that represents the carrier's ramp, operations, provisioning and freight agents.

The weather has thrown Southwest's staffing into chaos since Friday, prompting its chief executive, Bob Jordan, to promise investments in upgrading the company's systems, according to a memo obtained by CNN.

In total, airlines have canceled more than 5,000 US flights for Tuesday and Wednesday.