The United States federal government says it will investigate Southwest Airlines after the company cancelled thousands of flights, adding to travel chaos initially sparked by a once-in-a-lifetime storm over the Christmas weekend.
On Tuesday, the American airline grounded more than 2,600 flights on the East Coast. Those flights made up more than 80 per cent of all cancelled flights across the country.
The airline then cancelled another 2,500 fights scheduled for Wednesday and 1,400 for the following day.
Unions representing Southwest pilots and flight attendants blamed outdated crew-scheduling software for the cancellations and criticized company management.
Bob Jordan, the CEO of Southwest Airlines, argued that the storm disrupted the company’s "highly complex" network.
“The operation of the airline counts on all the pieces, especially aircraft and crews, remaining in motion to where they're planned to go,” he said.
“With our large fleet of aeroplanes and flight crews out of position in dozens of locations, and after days of trying to operate as much of our full schedule across the busy holiday weekend, we reached a decision to significantly reduce our flying to catch up.”
Mike Sage, who had planned to fly from Connecticut to Florida on Monday, described the situation as “a complete meltdown."
After the airline's phone and internet system stopped working, he drove to the airport and waited several hours to replace his ticket.
He was eventually able to replace his ticket for Saturday, but it reportedly came with a warning: "When [the attendant] handed me the ticket, she looked me in the eyes and said: 'If I were you, I would not count on this flight either. I would book with another airline. We have crews stranded all over, pilots sleeping on the floor in airports.'"
After the chaos started, the US Department of Transportation said its Secretary Pete Buttigieg spoke with Southwest’s CEO and made clear he expected the airline to “meet its obligations to passengers and workers and take steps to prevent a situation like this from happening again.”
The DoT said it would “examine whether cancellations were controllable and if Southwest is complying with its customer service plan.”
Two Senate Democrats called on Southwest to provide "significant" compensation for stranded travellers.
Southwest has apologized for disruptions, describing it as "unacceptable."
"We were fully staffed and prepared for the approaching holiday weekend when the severe weather swept across the continent," said a company statement.
"As we continue the work to recover our operation, we have made the decision to continue operating a reduced schedule by flying roughly one-third of our schedule for the next several days."