Southwest Airlines' meltdown is only partially because of the blizzard Southwest isn't the only airline experiencing delays and cancellations, but it is by far the worst-hit, with about 5,500 of its flights canceled across the country in the last two days.

The blizzard is just one reason behind the operational meltdown at Southwest Airlines

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After nearly a week of airlines canceling thousands of flights a day, President Biden says his administration will hold carriers accountable. The Department of Transportation singled out Southwest, calling its high rate of delays and cancellations unacceptable. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports on what went wrong.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: When I reached Skyler Lenz in New York City, his family had spent four days trying to get back home to Denver after their Southwest flight was canceled. Now he'd just rented a car for the 26-hour drive.

SKYLER LENZ: There's a place about halfway through in Illinois, 13 hours from here and 13 hours from Denver. So our goal is to take a quick breather at the hotel and then pick it up again so we can be there Thursday night.

LUDDEN: He says his 6- and 7-year-olds are struggling, but it's not like he had a choice.

LENZ: We looked at taking a train from New York to Denver, but those were booked. Greyhound was booked. We've looked at just about everything at other surrounding airports.

LUDDEN: Last-minute flights would have been 11 to $12,000 for the four of them. Southwest has canceled more than 60% of its flights over the busy Christmas week, far more than other airlines. Frustrated family members tell NPR they've had elderly relatives or those with disabilities stuck alone in airports. Others say they're out thousands of dollars in hotel fees and other nonrefundables. And Southwest is still rebooking days out. Taylor McClain's flight from Chicago back home to Salt Lake City isn't until Thursday.

TAYLOR MCCLAIN: Three or four days of vacation time that will go to waste just because they can't get me on a plane and then four full days at least of paying for the dog to stay in the kennel still.

LUDDEN: Like many, McClain was most upset at shoddy customer service, starting with his flight to Chicago.

MCCLAIN: While I finally got on a plane to leave at 9 p.m., I was still getting text messages saying, hey; your flight is now at 6 p.m., like, three, four hours late.

LUDDEN: All this from an airline that's been beloved and known for excellent customer service. My colleague Scott Neuman asked analysts what went wrong, and they said it's about much more than last week's devastating winter storm.

KYLE POTTER: In short, everything possible has gone wrong for Southwest, including, you know, some problems of their own making.

LUDDEN: Kyle Potter edits the website Thrifty Traveler. He says all airlines still face staffing problems made worse by the storm and by COVID and other respiratory illnesses. But he says Southwest's technology is in bad need of updating. Helane Becker agrees. She's an airlines analyst with Cowen and Company.

HELANE BECKER: It's not only the customer-facing systems. It's their crew scheduling and so on. And Southwest just has always been a laggard when it comes to technology.

LUDDEN: She and others also point to Southwest's lack of large hubs where it's easier to bring in backup staffing. Instead, pilots may not live where they fly out of and may fly to four or five or six destinations a day. So backfilling that can be a nightmare. In a statement, Southwest said it recognizes it's fallen short, and our heartfelt apologies for this are just beginning. Industry analyst Potter says that's a start but only. He says time and again, one airline or another has failed this way, but only customers have paid the price.

POTTER: That lack of accountability gives airlines across the country, you know, free rein to keep running these razor-thin margins where mass delays and cancellations is just a storm or a mechanic strike or an IT software issue away.

LUDDEN: He hopes the massive number of travelers upended this time will lead to an industry-wide reckoning. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.


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