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'Southwest is imploding': Why is the Dallas-based airline more impacted by travel issues than other carriers

Among the nation’s major airlines, the Dallas-based carrier ranked far and away as an outlier in canceled flights.

DALLAS — For travelers, Southwest Airlines put the grinch in one of the busiest travel days of the year, leaving thousands of travelers stranded in airports across the nation. 

“Southwest Airlines is basically imploding,” said Lyn Montgomery, president of TWU Local 556, the union that represents Southwest Airlines flight attendants. “It's really hard on not only Southwest Airlines customers, but also a deep impact on its flight crews.”

Among the nation’s major airlines, the Dallas-based carrier ranked far and away as an outlier in cancelled flights. 

As of Monday night, 70% of the airline’s flights – or more than 2,800 flights – had been canceled, according to FlightAware, a website that tracks flight cancellations and delays.

By contrast, Delta Airlines saw 9% of its flights canceled. United Airlines came in with 5%. American Airlines reported less than 1% of its flights canceled or just 12 flights, according to FlightAware. 

In its public statements, Southwest Airlines officials blamed  “extreme winter weather” conditions. 

“It’s just the sheer size of this storm,” Jay McVay, a Southwest Airlines official, told reporters in Houston. “This one started on the west and swept east and impacted almost every one of our largest airports … Just about the time we would get a runway cleared in Denver, that snow and ice was starting to impact Kansas City, St. Louis … and it just snowballed all the way across the country. So we've been chasing our tails struggling to catch up.”

But blaming the weather doesn’t really explain the "why it happened." Other airlines experienced extreme weather, too.

So, why was Southwest Airlines so much more impacted than other airlines?

One big reason could be the way Southwest operates.

Most major airlines operate on a hub-and-spoke system. They have hubs at several major airports. They station aircraft and crews at those hubs and then run connecting flights in and out of those hubs.

"You're bringing everybody to one spot – passengers, planes and flight crews," said Mark Duebner, who recently retired as Dallas Love Field’s director of aviation. “It's not as an efficient way to run an airline. But it does provide flexibility when the system is stressed."

Southwest Airlines uses an old-fashioned model called a point-to-point system.

“A plane leaving one destination in the morning is going to fly several segments and probably will have more than one or two crews throughout today,” Duebner said. “If the crew isn't positioned in the right spot, because of another cancellation, then that flight gets canceled, connecting flights get canceled. It just really spirals downward very quickly. It's the combination of a perfect storm as you will.” 

Normally, Southwest’s system is very efficient, he said, adding Love Field processes more passengers per gate than any other airport in the country. 

“You have one problem, there’s no slack lack in their system and so it’s really hard to recover because the pressure to continue to perform is always there,” he said.

When WFAA caught up with Duebner, he was driving with his family to Colorado. Their own Southwest Airlines flight had gotten canceled.

Duebner, who worked closely with Southwest Airlines officials during his time at Love Field, said he’s certain that the airline will learn from what happened and make changes.

However, unwinding the current gridlock could take days.  

“It's like our operation is a bunch of dominoes that we set up to fall and once one domino falls, they all follow,” Montgomery said.

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