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What's going on with Southwest, and what to do if your flight gets canceled as travel hits its pandemic peak

The "high-utilization" operating model is "great for passengers until something like this happens."

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Twenty/20

Southwest Airlines has had a rough couple of days. Over the course of three days, the carrier has canceled more than 2,000 flights and left thousands of travelers stranded around the country.

The trouble started Saturday, when the airline canceled 808 flights. On Sunday, it canceled an additional 1,019 flights, and by Monday morning, it had deleted another 300 from its schedule.

The airline, which perennially scores high marks with travelers, initially blamed air traffic control restrictions and "disruptive weather" for the situation in a tweet on Saturday, but the Federal Aviation Administration quickly pushed back on that explanation, tweeting that weather-related shortages were not to blame.

Whatever the initial cause, one reason the chain reaction spread so quickly is in part due to Southwest's high-utilization operating model, which keeps planes moving quickly throughout the day, says David Slotnick, senior airline business reporter at The Points Guy.

The airline flies its "planes pretty frequently: not having them sit on the ground for too long, not building a lot of time between flights," Slotnick says. That helps Southwest keep costs down, which is "great for passengers until something like this happens."

Because Southwest's planes and crews are zipping around so much, it leaves "less room to course correct and fix things," Slotnick says. Even if a small part of the schedule falls off pace, it can begin a chain reaction that leaves important hubs like Denver, Baltimore, Dallas Love Field, and Chicago Midway understaffed and without sufficient aircraft.

Winter is going to be a busy flying season

Southwest was struggling with staffing shortages this summer as it began increasing service amid growing consumer demand, and it had already begun reducing some of its schedule "just to build some slack into the system" should problems arise, Slotnick says.

The major U.S. carriers were hurt deeply when business and leisure travel all but stopped last year: Many furloughed workers and offered buyouts so workers could retire early. So when Covid-19 vaccines became widely available and travel volumes picked up this summer, many airlines struggled to staff up. American faced a pilot shortage early in the summer, and Spirit had a spate of cancellations that lasted more than 10 days in August.

These problems are likely to persist through winter, which, based on early bookings, will probably be the busiest season since the pandemic began. After months of slow business, carriers are eager to get those travelers on their airplanes, but they have to balance a tricky math problem: scheduling the maximum number of passengers with the staffing capacity they can currently rely on, Slotnick says.

"You can have a scenario like this weekend's with Southwest where the airline has only so many pilots and so many airplanes and it books a schedule that uses all of them with no margin for error," Slotnick says. Then, when schedules hit a snag, like a weather delay, "it throws everything into total disarray."

"They definitely don't want that for the holidays, but at the same time they don't want to put too little capacity on to the point that people can't book flights," Slotnick says. "It's a balancing act."

What to do if your flight is canceled

While the major domestic airlines are likely to continue feeling some growing pains as they adjust to demand, travelers can rest a bit easier knowing that airlines already learned a lot last spring and this summer, Slotnick says. Remember that airline schedulers are master logisticians, too.

"The airlines are fairly good at guessing what demand is going to be. It's a little bit harder these days, but I think they learned a lot from the surge in demand in the spring in the summer," Slotnick says. "They're gonna use that lesson just in forecasting for the holiday season."

That said, with so many people taking to the skies in the next few weeks, it's wise to be prepared for anything, including your flight being canceled or rescheduled. These tips can help make sure you get to your destination.

  • Contact the airline. Some airlines have "interline agreements where they'll actually book you on another carrier," Slotnick says. Find out if yours is one of them. If they don't book you, you might be able to book it yourself and claim the agreement. (Southwest does not offer interline agreements.)
  • Look at your credit card benefits. Some cards offer some level of travel insurance built into their benefits package, Slotnick says. If you booked your trip with a travel card, you likely have some travel insurance built in.
  • Know that they owe you a refund. If an airline cancels your flight, they are required by federal law to refund your ticket, Slotnick says. Some may encourage you to take a voucher, but they have to refund it to you in the way you paid.
  • Keep an eye on your reservation. If flights are being cut now but your trip is still a few days away, keep an eye on your reservation and check the number of daily cancellations as your date of departure nears, Slotnick says. "If you see that happening, then you can probably assume you're safe, and just keep checking the reservation to be sure. If it looks like it's not getting better than you know you might want to reassess what your options are."
  • Consider using points to book. If you have a lot of pandemic points saved up, now might be a great time to cash them in, TPG experts say. That way, if something goes awry, you won't have any cash on the line.

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