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Travel expert explains reasoning behind Southwest flight cancellations

Southwest Flight Attendant Assault
Posted at 8:02 PM, Oct 12, 2021

There was a lot of frustration among travelers this past weekend, with more than 2,000 flights canceled across the country on Southwest alone.

“I don't want just future Southwest credits like I want my money back,” traveler Allison Cavanaugh said.

Allison Cavanaugh says her trip was extended two days due to two separate flight cancellations on Saturday and Sunday.

“I asked the hotel lady if the people at the hotel were mostly Southwest people who have gotten their flights canceled, and she said like the whole hotel was.”

On the third try, she says she switched to a separate airline but still missed a day of work.

“I had to find people to cover for me, and then they have to get COVID tested to be able to work for me, and I had to reschedule my COVID testing so I could go to work on Tuesday," Cavanaugh said. "So it's never just like a slight cancellation of just getting home later. There's a trickle effect.”

In a statement, Saturday - and again on Monday - Southwest Airlines blamed the number of cancellations on air traffic control issues and disruptive weather.

Experts say those issues did not force mass cancellations from other airlines - and there may be more factors at play. Daniel Burnham is a Senior Product Operations Specialist with flight email alert service Scott’s Cheap Flights.

“I'm inclined to think that this is more tied to staffing shortages and the difficulty of rehiring the very skilled workforce when a lot of people might have left the industry, and you know, you can't train those people up very quickly,” Burnham said.

He says he's seen a trend of similar regional meltdowns this summer.

JetBluecanceled hundreds of flights in September due to unspecified issues. Spirit Airlines blamed a staff shortage for thousands of cancellations in late August. This past weekend, Southwest seemed to be the leading airline impacted.

“When you start having a minor delay these days because of the limited capacity of employees, you know, you may not have as many additional planes and your slack in the system," Burnham said. "It's difficult to recover, you know, so something like this, if it had happened in 2019, it probably wouldn't have cascaded to be as serious as it is now where it is at this point. It's difficult for them to dig themselves up from that initial delay.”

Southwest says it expects to recover in the coming days.

Both the airline and the Southwest pilots union denied reports that this weekend's cancellations were related to a protest over the company's COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Travel experts say flight delays and cancellations are possible in the coming months - especially during holidays and peak season.

Burnham recommends checking your flight status often and giving yourself a few days of buffer time to get to your destination.