ST. LOUIS COUNTY — Wendell Steward booked a 6 a.m. flight out of Oklahoma City on Monday to go see his son in Portland, Oregon. But midafternoon found him in St. Louis.
He was yet another passenger delayed by thousands of Southwest Airlines flight cancellations, which started over the weekend and stretched into a bad Monday on the tarmac, too.
“I’ll get there,” Steward said. “Just 11 hours later.”
The Dallas-based airline canceled more than 1,900 flights on Saturday and Sunday, then another 360 on Monday — 10% of its schedule — and delayed almost 1,500 more, or 40% of its flights that day, according to the FlightAware tracking service. More than a dozen canceled and 40 delayed on Monday were scheduled to fly in or out of St. Louis Lambert International Airport, adding to 54 canceled over the weekend.
Airlines have struggled this summer with high numbers of delayed and canceled flights as pandemic-depressed demand recovered faster than executives thought it would. American Airlines said in June it would cut hundreds of flights to avoid overloading its system. Spirit Airlines canceled more than 2,800 flights over 11 days beginning in late July. And in August, Southwest announced it was trimming its September schedule by 27 flights a day, or less than 1%, and its October schedule by 162 flights a day, or 4.5%.
This time, Southwest blamed air traffic control issues and bad weather for weekend “operational challenges.” Executives said troubles in Florida dominoed across the country as the cancellations stranded staffers far from their flights.
The third straight day of scheduling woes meant there was again grumbling at Lambert, where Southwest handles more than half of all commercial flights.
“It’s a mess,” said Elen Cantos, a Florida resident trying to get home from a vacation in Southern California.
She and her sister, Emmalou, began the day in Long Beach, California. The airline told them their connecting flight out of St. Louis had been canceled and that they should come back the next day. But they had to work on Tuesday, so they took the flight to St. Louis anyway and made a beeline for customer service. There, they managed to negotiate two seats on a flight to Nashville and then home to Panama City Beach.
“They gave me a $200 voucher for ‘next time,’” Elen Cantos said. “I said, ‘Never again.’”
Christopher Modderman’s arrival in St. Louis on Monday marked his third day trying to make it home to Oregon from his mother’s funeral in Washington, D.C. He’d spent two nights in Baltimore hotels this weekend as three plans to get him home fell through.
By the time a reporter walked up Monday afternoon, he was all done complaining — except about the $75 he’d spent on Ubers to get to and from canceled flights Sunday.
“I just want to get home,” he said.
At Lambert, cancellations hit flights to and from cities all over the country — to Atlanta, Milwaukee and several in Florida — and from New York, Phoenix, Miami and Orange County, California, to name a few.
The widespread disruptions began shortly after the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association asked a federal court to block the airline’s vaccinate mandate. The union said it doesn’t oppose vaccination, but it argued in a filing Friday that Southwest must negotiate before taking such a step.
Still, as the scope of Southwest’s operational meltdown became clear over the weekend, the union denied that pilots were skipping work to protest the vaccine mandate.
The union said Southwest’s operation “has become brittle and subject to massive failures under the slightest pressure.” Airlines persuaded thousands of workers to take leaves of absence during the pandemic. Unions at Southwest and American have argued that management was too slow to bring pilots back, leaving them short-handed.
Meanwhile, the federal government acknowledged delays in part of Florida on Friday but pushed back against Southwest’s air-traffic control explanation, saying Sunday that “some airlines” were experiencing problems because of planes and crews being out of position. Southwest was the only airline to report such a large percentage of canceled and delayed flights over the weekend.
Southwest said it expects to resume normal service this week but didn’t rule out future turbulence.
Southwest Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven said in a message to employees late on Sunday that the sudden flight cancellations had caused staff shortages and may lead to a reduction in the number of flights the company can operate in November and December.
Shares of Southwest fell $2.25, or more than 4%, to close at $51.67 on the day.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.