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Southwest’s Epic Operational Meltdown Ruined My Vacation

Katie Seemann's image
Katie Seemann
Katie Seemann's image

Katie Seemann

Senior Content Contributor and News Editor

343 Published Articles 49 Edited Articles

Countries Visited: 28U.S. States Visited: 29

Katie has been in the points and miles game since 2015 and started her own blog in 2016. She’s been freelance writing since then and her work has been featured in publications like Travel + Leisure, F...

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When my friend texted me yesterday that her flight was canceled, I took a wild guess that she was flying Southwest Airlines (I was right).

The epic meltdown of Southwest Airlines is all over the news now, and I’m one of the travelers stuck in the middle of it.

Here’s a quick recap of what’s happening, as well as my experience and some tips on what you can do if you’ve also experienced a flight cancellation or delay.

What Happened to Southwest Airlines?

While it’s true that a pre-Christmas winter storm caused many flight delays and cancellations, the weather is not to blame for Southwest Airlines’ near-total collapse.

Yes, the weather started the problem, but unlike most other airlines, Southwest couldn’t recover and actually fell further into trouble after the harsh weather cleared up.

A large part of the issue can be attributed to Southwest’s antiquated computer systems, making the airline unable to position crews, locate baggage, or manage passengers. The point-to-point flight network used by Southwest (versus a hub-and-spoke model used by other airlines) and the lack of airline partners to assist with rebookings also contributed to the chaos.

The problem is so bad that the U.S. Department of Transportation is getting involved, stating, “Southwest’s unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays and reports of lack of prompt customer service” is concerning.

Tweet from USDOT about Southwest Meltdown
Even the U.S. Department of Transportation is getting involved. Image Credit: Twitter

The U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, confirmed this is not just weather related, stating “their system really has completely melted down,” during a recent interview.

According to FlightAware, on December 26, 2022, about 70% of Southwest’s flights were canceled, which is about 2,800 flights in total. On December 27 and 28, 2022, Southwest canceled over 60% of its flights, which works out to about 2,500 to 2,700 flights a day. Flights on December 29 and 30, 2022, aren’t projected to be much better.

My Experience With Southwest’s Meltdown

My husband and I were taking our daughter to Florida to visit her grandmother and I was looking forward to a few warm beach days after the snowy and bitterly cold Christmas I’d just experienced at home in Ohio.

We were booked on a direct flight from Columbus (CMH) to Fort Lauderdale (FLL) on December 27, 2022. On December 26, 2022, I checked in for my flight as I always do and was starting to get excited to see the beach the next day.

Around the same time, I was trying to book an unrelated flight for a trip in May but was having trouble on the website so I decided to try Southwest’s mobile app. As soon as I pulled up the app, I saw that my flight had been canceled.

Southwest flight cancellation
I discovered my flight was canceled on the Southwest mobile app. Image Credit: Southwest

At this point, I was unaware of how massive of a problem Southwest was having, so I went to the website to see what flights were available before I called to rebook our flights (online rebooking wasn’t working at the time). When I saw days and days with unavailable flights, I quickly realized that my vacation was most likely not going to happen.

Southwest canceled flights
There were no options to rebook my flight for 4 days. Image Credit: Southwest

When I tried calling Southwest I either got a busy signal or the automated system answered and immediately hung up on me.

Southwest didn’t communicate that my flight was canceled until the early morning hours of the next day! My husband and I each got 6 middle-of-the-night texts (plus another 1 later in the day) informing us that our flight had been canceled. What’s even more frustrating is the link to rebook included in the texts didn’t work.

Texts from Southwest about canceled flgiht
I got 7 identical texts with links that didn’t work starting 8 hours after my flight was canceled. Image Credit: Southwest Airlines

While my flight was showing as canceled in the mobile app, the website still showed my flight as “modified.” There was never any indication that my flight was canceled in my online account. If I hadn’t noticed on the app or hadn’t been signed up for text alerts, I would never have known my flight was canceled.

Today, 2 days after my flight was canceled, I don’t have a refund, I’m not on vacation, and the only communication I’ve received from Southwest is a generic email and 7 identical texts with a link to rebook that didn’t work.

Email from Southwest about operational meltdown
This is the only email I received from Southwest about my canceled flight. Image Credit: Southwest

While I am disappointed that my flight was canceled, I’m thankful that I’m home and not stuck in an airport like many other travelers.

My ruined vacation is frustrating, but there are thousands and thousands of people out there who are still stuck in airports, many without their luggage, with no way to get to their destination — or back home.

What Can You Do if Southwest Canceled Your Flight?

Canceled Delayed Flight Board
You may be entitled to compensation for expenses incurred after a canceled flight. Image Credit: Air Images via Shutterstock

As a passenger, you’re entitled to compensation if your flight was delayed or canceled due to controllable circumstances. If Southwest canceled your flight, you’re eligible for a full refund, as opposed to just a flight credit. You’ll need to request your refund.

Southwest says it will reimburse “reasonable requests” for expenses incurred as a result of a cancellation or significant delay from December 24, 2022, through January 2, 2023. The site lists meals, hotels, and alternate transportation as examples of what “reasonable requests” might be, but the wording leaves a lot up to interpretation.

Southwest is offering reimbursement for reasonable expenses
Southwest is offering reimbursement for “reasonable” expenses incurred as a result of a canceled flight. Image Credit: Southwest

Hot Tip: You’ll need to email your receipts to Southwest for reimbursement consideration.

You may also have some travel insurance coverage on your credit card, but, hopefully, you won’t need to use it since Southwest should cover your expenses.

If you have Southwest flights planned in the next week or 2, I would suggest making alternate arrangements as a backup. It’s not clear how long it’s going to take to clean up this mess, but it could be a while.

It’s also unclear how — and if — Southwest will offer any compensation for ruined vacations. Much of the damage that has been done isn’t easy to monetize — how can you put a price on missed holiday plans, not seeing loved ones, or spending days stuck in an airport?

Final Thoughts

Many are calling this the biggest airline meltdown in aviation history — and that seems pretty accurate. I’ve had plenty of flights canceled in the past but I’ve never experienced this utter lack of communication and have always been able to get it worked out within a day or 2.

This is a public relations nightmare for Southwest, but it’s tough to feel sorry for the airline (save for front-line employees who have been doing their best to work with customers) since it seems that much of this meltdown was brought on by outdated systems that failed miserably.

I’ve been a loyal Southwest flyer and a Companion Pass holder for years, but I am going to seriously rethink my loyalty after this mess. If you’ve experienced a similar situation, let us know in the comments below.

Good luck out there!

Katie Seemann's image

About Katie Seemann

Katie has been in the points and miles game since 2015 and started her own blog in 2016. She’s been freelance writing since then and her work has been featured in publications like Travel + Leisure, Forbes Advisor, and Fortune Recommends.

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