Southwest Airlines cancels nearly 1,500 flights, stranding travelers across the country

Photo (c) John M. Chase - Getty Images

One expert reminds consumers that airlines are required to offer refunds for canceled flights

Southwest Airlines may have escaped major cancellations from New Year’s weekend, but it’s in the hot seat now. The discount carrier pulled 658 flights off the board on Thursday, according to FlightAware. Another 519 were canceled on Friday, and there are another 230 cancellations predicted for Saturday and 19 for Sunday.

In an email to ConsumerAffairs, a Southwest spokesperson explained that “ongoing staff challenges” – most likely coronavirus-related sick calls from workers – and weather “disruptions” at major operation locations were the cause of the cancellations. The weather situation isn’t likely to change soon, with winter storm Garrett continuing to create travel problems as it blankets parts of the mid-South and Northeast with snow. 

Southwest doesn’t appear to be the only airline that is canceling flights. United, American, SkyWest, JetBlue, Alaska Airlines, Endeavor, and Delta have canceled 1,078 flights on Friday. FlightAware’s estimates show that United and SkyWest have called off 234 flights on Saturday and another 39 on Sunday. However, those numbers could change quickly because airlines have to shuffle schedules when weather conditions change or workers call in sick.

What travelers can do about canceled flights

While flight cancellations can upset someone’s travel plans, the government has protections in place to keep consumers from losing the price of their tickets.

"In the face of the run of cancellations and delays we’ve been seeing since just before Christmas, the biggest thing passengers need to keep in mind is that, under federal law, if an airport cancels or significantly alters their itinerary and they choose not to fly, they’re owed a full refund in their original form of payment, regardless of the reason for the cancellation or change,” Willis Orlando, Scott’sCheapFlights Senior Product Operations Specialist, told ConsumerAffairs.

Airlines would probably rather have a traveler take a voucher so they don’t lose any hard money, but it’s certainly worth your while to call or text a customer service representative and claim your cash refund if flight cancellations cause you to miss your trip.  

“In terms of when this might end, it’s impossible to predict with Omicron, but we do expect weather permitting, as we get into the second half of January and passenger numbers drop off from their holiday highs, that we should see airlines move into a better position to adjust staffing and schedules to stave off any further mass delays,” Orlando said.

While Southwest has a slew of conditions when it comes to using vouchers, travelers can sometimes be blindsided by a term they didn’t expect. Lynne, of Honolulu, Hawaii, recently told us that she had an unpleasant surprise when booking a new flight. 

“If your Southwest ticket was affected from the pandemic and the expiration date was extended to 9/2022, beware as once you buy a ticket now with your travel funds from the canceled pandemic flight, and then decide that you have to change that ticket, your expiration will be only about 15 days from the day you cancel the new flight,” Lynne wrote in a ConsumerAffairs review.

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