The severe winter storm that hit Atlanta and much of the rest of the country has disrupted plans for travelers across the U.S. and wreaked havoc on some operations at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
What started as frigid weather and blizzards in other regions snowballed into massive flight cancellations, frustrations trying to reach airline customer service, long lines, mishandled baggage and malfunctioning restrooms at the world’s busiest airport due to low water pressure.
Southwest Airlines, the second-largest carrier in Atlanta, had a meltdown of its flight operations that has left hundreds of thousands of people stranded during the busy Christmas travel period. Southwest canceled more than 2,500 flights across the country Tuesday, including nearly 100 in Atlanta, according to FlightAware.com.
Dallas-based Southwest has had the most severe operational problems this holiday season, canceling more than 71% of its flights Monday and more than 60% of its flightsscheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, according to FlightAware.com.
Joe Brancatelli, editor of a website for business travelers called JoeSentMe.com, is advising people to defer all travel on Southwest in coming days until the airline resolves its issues.
“Southwest Airlines has all but collapsed,” according to Brancatelli. “Southwest terminals around the country are a sea of aimless, flightless humanity.”
The problems have been so severe that the U.S. Department of Transportation said on Twitter it “is concerned by Southwest’s unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays & reports of lack of prompt customer service.” The DOT said it would look into whether the cancellations were “controllable” and if Southwest is complying with its customer service plan.
Thawing from deep freeze
Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, the largest carrier at Hartsfield-Jackson, struggled through hundreds of flight cancellations a day over the holiday weekend. Some Delta cancellations continued into Monday.
On Tuesday, thousands of travelers filled the airport trying to get back home after holiday trips.
Inside the terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson, freezing weather caused water pipes to burst and resulted in low water pressure — with some restrooms not working properly in parts of the airport.
Delta is advising passengers traveling to and from Atlanta that a water main break is affecting concessions, restaurants and facilities in the terminal.
The airport warned late Monday that the low water pressure would trip emergency alarms in the airport over the next 24 hours.
Extremely low temperatures also freeze up airport gates, fueling equipment and catering equipment, which disrupted flight operations in recent days.
Some passengers also ran into problems claiming their luggage, with bags piled up in Atlanta and other airports around the country after being separated from their owners in the chaos of last-minute flight disruptions.
Southwest onMonday acknowledged it is “falling short” and said it “made the decision to continue operating a reduced schedule by flying roughly one third of our schedule for the next several days.”
That means well over 2,000 Southwest flights canceled a day — leaving hundreds of thousands of passengers stuck.
The operational catastrophe began last week when wind chill temperatures nearly 40 degrees below zero at some of Southwest’s largest operations in Denver and Chicago made for “dangerous working conditions” for ground workers at the airport. That contributed to hundreds of flight cancellations.
The storm-driven disruptions led to flight crews being displaced, causing the cancellations to metastasize across the country —overwhelming Southwest’s system. Now the airline is attempting to reset and get crews and aircraft in position for a recovery of its operations.
“I don’t ever recall a major airline canceling two-thirds of their schedule for this many days in a row,” Brancatelli said. “This is unprecedented.”
U.S. PIRG consumer watchdog Teresa Murray issued a statement Tuesday pushing for airline regulation reform, including stronger enforcement of passenger protections and allowing passengers whose flights are canceled to have their tickets transferred at no charge to another airline with seats available.
“The tales of passengers who spent the holiday weekend sleeping on the floor at an airport are heartbreaking,” Murray said. “As federal officials examine how much of the mayhem was preventable, this catastrophe once again exposes the massive changes that are needed to better protect airline passengers.”
Brancatelli also said he believes the federal government should step in to protect travelers.
“The feds have to act here,” he said. “Those people need to be taken care of, and the government needs to move on that.”
U.S. flight cancellations
Thousands of flights have been canceled for this week, the majority of them from Southwest Airlines. Here are some preliminary numbers as of Tuesday afternoon:
Monday: More than 4,000 (including more than 2,900 Southwest flights)
Tuesday: More than 3,000 (including more than 2,590 Southwest flights)
Wednesday: More than 2,500 (including more than 2,470 Southwest flights)
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., issued a statement Tuesday saying the Senate committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation would be “looking into the causes of these disruptions and its impact to consumers.” She added that consumers “deserve strong protections, including an updated consumer refund rule.”
U.S. Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., on Tuesday called for Southwest Airlines to compensate passengers for avoidable flight cancellations over the holiday period, including for rebooked tickets, hotel, meal and transportation reimbursement and other compensation for disruption to their holiday plans.
This story comes to Rough Draft Atlanta through a content partnership with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where it first appeared.