Southwest Airlines' meltdown has nothing to do with weather, travel expert says

The winter holidays are said to be the most wonderful time of the year, but for thousands of stranded travelers, the nightmare they have experienced over the past few days is more symbolic of a Halloween horror movie as opposed to a Hallmark Christmas special.

Simply put, there’s no place like home and travelers are doing what they can to return.

Earlier this year, Southwest Airlines was ranked by J.D. Power as the best basic economy airline. However, a massive winter storm and other factors forced the airline to cancel nearly 16,000 flights nationwide since Dec. 22.

Award-winning travel journalist Peter Greenberg joined Good Day LA on Wednesday to offer tips to frustrated passengers.

It isn’t just Southwest Airlines

Greenberg pointed out Southwest isn’t the only airline dealing with delays and cancelations, but it has been the hardest hit.

"They knew a storm was coming in, not just Southwest. All the airlines knew it and that allows them to do what we call ‘preemptive cancelations,’" he explained. "Within 48 hours they are able to keep their planes and crews in place so that when the storm front moved back, they could start right away."

He explained leading up to the storm, other airlines canceled about 5% of their flights while Southwest only canceled 1% of theirs. Now, the airline has canceled between 62% and 70% of its flights since Monday.

"That’s an unacceptable level and has absolutely nothing to do with weather," he said.

Southwest has an outdated system

In this circumstance, Southwest's technology could not keep up with the times.

"Their internal communication system is antiquated, relying on old technology that they literally could not communicate with their pilots or their flight attendants. Conversely, the flight attendants and pilots couldn’t communicate with the airline," he said.

To add fuel to the fire, he said at one point, Southwest officials didn’t even know where many of their planes were.

Southwest’s challenging policies

A major perk of Southwest Airlines is that bags fly free. A downside? They don't necessarily play with the other guys. 

"Southwest doesn't have what we call interline agreements with other airlines that would then allow the new doors, your ticket over to another carrier to get you home," Greenberg said. "Not only that, the other carrier probably has no space right now because it's the holidays."

So, what can you do?

Greenberg said Southwest passengers have a choice to either buy another ticket with another carrier, which is often the more expensive option. Or, alternatively, you can form a "committee of friends you just made at the airport," rent a car, and drive home.

What happens to the luggage stuck at the airport?

FOX 11’s Mario Ramirez was at LAX on Wednesday morning and showed the piles of luggage in Southwest’s baggage claim area.

"The baggage is not going to fly if the passengers are going to fly, so those bags are probably not going to get back for another five or six days as well."

Do Southwest passengers have any chance of getting a refund?

Greenberg suggests keeping your receipts and documenting as much as you can, so you’re able to make a claim down the road. 

"I'm convinced that Southwest Airlines should be running a lot of checks to reimburse people for their hotels, for their food, for maybe even those rental cars they had to go rent," he said. "So, the key here is, if you're one of those people, hold on to your receipts in a paper trail. Ready? Make sure you have the names, the full names, and the titles of the people you spoke to at Southwest."

How do refunds work with the other airlines when it comes to weather?

"Any airline that cancels your flight, even for weather under the U.S. Department of Transportation rules, you're entitled to a full and immediate refund no matter what you paid for your ticket, [or] how you paid for their ticket. Even if you bought a so-called nonrefundable ticket, you don't have to accept a voucher or a future flight credit. You're entitled to that refund immediately," Greenberg said.

Will Southwest be held accountable?

Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan issued an apology on Tuesday saying he’s "truly sorry." Now, the airlines’ holiday meltdown is under federal investigation.

"This is not about the weather," Greenberg said, noting it could be connected to the operational control of Southwest Airlines for example. 

"They messed up. Their own CEO admitted the same. And the transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, also said it in terms of their investigation. So, my guess is there will be financial consequences here for the airline in the form of an enforcement action, a fine levied against them by the dog."