Snow Storms Wallops Southwest Airlines

As parts of the Midwest and Atlantic Coast got pounded by winter storms, lots of things came to a halt. One of them was commercial air service. Southwest Airlines had to cancel most of its flights in the areas hardest hit by the weather. A company spokesman say they have learned the hard way not to leave planes parked at an airport in a storm's path.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Parts of the Midwest and Atlantic Coast are being pounded by another winter storms today, which means airlines are taking another big hit. Southwest Airlines has had to cancel most of its flights in the affected areas and it may be surprising that an airline named Southwest has been hit so hard by Snowmageddon: The sequel.

Yet as NPR's Wade Goodywn reports, that's exactly the way things worked out.

WADE GOODWYN: It's lovely in Chicago this time of year.

(Soundbite of weather forecast)

Unidentified Meteorologist: Ten inches expected today in addition to the four already on the ground - and a lot of heavy winds which is causing whiteout conditions and even ground blizzards.

GOODWYN: A perfect day for flying.

(Soundbite of weather forecast)

Unidentified Meteorologist: Five hundred flights cancelled in both of Chicago's airports, and Southwest has cancelled all of its flights into Midway Airport -through tomorrow.

GOODWYN: The forecast out of the Midwest yesterday was a road warrior's nightmare come true. First, a one-two punch right to the nation's solar plexus and just like that, Chicago was down on one knee. Then, a nasty right hook in the East Coast kisser and the nation's air traffic flow can say Goodnight Gracie.

Ms. WHITNEY EICHINGER (Spokesperson for Southwest Airlines): You'll see that rippling effect across the system and then, of course, you'll see them come back online in the same rippling effect as the weather clears.

GOODWYN: Whitney Eichinger is a spokesperson for Southwest Airlines. Yesterday, Southwest flew their morning schedule out of Chicago and then, at 10AM, the airline cancelled the rest of the day's flights prophylactically. Eichinger says Southwest has learned the hard way, not to leave dozens of planes trapped in a storm's path, so they fly until just before the weather hits. The 737's fly away and dont come back. They spend the night somewhere cozier and the next morning fly back to Chicago to pick up their stranded passengers and whisk them away.

Ms. EICHINGER: It's going to be a much faster operation to be able to get the aircraft in from overnight cities than having to dig them out of the snow, as you might imagine.

GOODWYN: You think it's no fun digging your frozen car out from under two feet of snow and ice; how about if you and a few of your buddies help me with my McDonnell Douglas? Obviously, the fewer those jobs the better. Hundreds of Southwest flights have already been cancelled and more will be today. The airline has discovered it's best to take control of their system, even if that means canceling more flights than might absolutely be necessary; otherwise, youre like a defenseless boxer with your chin hanging out taking punch after punch from an angry Mother Nature. When she's like that, its better to stay away from Mom.

Ms. EICHINGER: If there's a way to minimize the impact of what's about to happen - whether it be weather or anything otherwise - Southwest definitely wants to get out in front of that and make the decision beforehand so that we're not left making a last-minute decision.

GOODYWN: Chicago, Boston, Providence, Hartford, Long Island, LaGuardia, Philadelphia and Baltimore - this is not your father's Southwest Airlines.

Ms. EICHINGER: Southwest carries more customers in the U.S. than any other airlines. So regardless of our great name, which we take a lot of pride in, any kind of weather affects us pretty severely.

GOODYWN: Southwest Airlines is all grown up, now, and snowed in.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

MONTAGNE: And by the way Steve, the Washington Post this morning is calling this new big storm Snowverkill.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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