Southwest’s weekend meltdown shows airlines are still vulnerable to massive disruptions – and hints at what holiday travel might look like

A number of grounded Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft are shown parked at Victorville Airport in Victorville, California, U.S., March 26, 2019.  REUTERS/Mike Blake
A number of grounded Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft are shown parked at Victorville Airport in Victorville, California Reuters
  • Southwest Airlines is still recovering from its weekend meltdown with cancellations continuing into the week.
  • Airlines have been experiencing these meltdowns during the pandemic after scaling down in 2020.
  • Holiday travel may be impacted as airlines have proven they’re still highly vulnerable to disruptions.

Southwest Airlines is still recovering from a dizzying Columbus Day travel weekend mired by thousands of flights cancellations that stranded passengers across the country.

America’s largest low-cost carrier initially warned of cancellations on Saturday, placing the blame on “air traffic control issues” and bad weather. The ripple effects are still impacting the airline as of Monday and flight-tracking company FlightAware shows 365 canceled flights, or 9% of its planned schedule, and 713 delayed flights, another 20% of its planned schedule, at the time of writing.

Residual cancellations will subside as more time passes from the incident but the meltdown casts doubt on the ability of airlines to handle upcoming holiday travel. Americans will likely be taking to the skies en masse for the winter holidays and some airlines have proven that they’re still vulnerable to these types of disruptions.

“The system’s a little more brittle because there’s less spare capacity, that’s just the nature of the beast,” Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at Teal Group, told Insider. “And that’s another reason to be more concerned about weather events.”

Extreme weather events including thunderstorms have been the catalyst for airline meltdowns in months past and winter brings its own challenges. Weather incidents like snowstorms, when combined with the reduced workforce airlines are experiencing, can quickly see an airline spiral into delays and cancellations.

Some airlines are already touting how much flying they’re planning for the holiday season. United Airlines, for example, plans to fly 91% of its 2019 December domestic schedule this December.

United, for its part, has been largely spared of these operational nightmares and cites its decision not to furlough pilots during the pandemic as the reason.

Southwest’s weekend meltdown isn’t the first time the airline has had to cancel a chunk of its scheduled flying during the pandemic. The recovery can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days, and takes longer during high-traffic periods.

“The system isn’t designed to flex the way it’s been flexing over the last year and a half,” Aboulafia said. “We’ve never had to scale down and up as a system the way we have this time. It’s hard.”

Airlines have also had a harder time deciphering demand trends as vaccination rates across the country remain slow-growing, according to Aboulafia. Many travelers didn’t hesitate to take to the skies in 2020 but some may reconsider holiday travel to destinations with large rates of unvaccinated residents.

“Sometimes these things are hard to anticipate, everything can’t always be in sync,” Aboulafia said, noting that airlines had no choice but to scale down during the worst of the pandemic when demand dropped by around 66%.

Flyers can take proactive measures including staying near customer services centers ahead of scheduled flights, having multiple ways of contacting an airline to rebook a canceled flight, researching potential backup flights, and understand their travel insurance coverage (including insurance that’s included with certain travel credit cards).

Beyond that, Aboulafia says that “there’s not a lot you can do to hedge against [disruptions] except allow for some flexibility.” Delta Air Lines was the victim of bad weather and staffing issues during 2020’s holiday season that saw around 500 flight cancellations around the Christmas travel rush.

Aboulafia also recommends that travelers consider an airline’s geography when booking holiday travel, as airlines are stronger at their hubs and can recover quicker in the event of a disruption.

Dallas, for example, is an American Airlines and Southwest stronghold while Boston has a large JetBlue Airways and Delta presence.