What’s causing Southwest Airlines to cancel so many flights? Here’s what we know

More than 1,000 flights canceled as of 2 p.m. Sunday

FILE - In this May 16, 2008 file photo, Southwest Airlines jets are seen parked at their gates at Baltimore Washington International Airport in Baltimore, Md. Southwest Airlines will reduce flights for the rest of the year as it tries to restore an operation that stumbled over the summer and now faces lower demand because of the rise in coronavirus cases. Southwest said Thursday, AUg. 26, 2021 it will cut its September schedule by 27 flights a day, or less than 1%, and chop 162 flights a day, or 4.5% of the schedule, from early October through Nov. 5. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, file)
FILE - In this May 16, 2008 file photo, Southwest Airlines jets are seen parked at their gates at Baltimore Washington International Airport in Baltimore, Md. Southwest Airlines will reduce flights for the rest of the year as it tries to restore an operation that stumbled over the summer and now faces lower demand because of the rise in coronavirus cases. Southwest said Thursday, AUg. 26, 2021 it will cut its September schedule by 27 flights a day, or less than 1%, and chop 162 flights a day, or 4.5% of the schedule, from early October through Nov. 5. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, file) (AP2008)

NEW YORK – Southwest Airlines canceled hundreds of flights over the weekend, blaming the woes on air traffic control issues and weather.

The airline canceled more than 1,000 flights in total, or 29% of its schedule, as of 7 p.m. ET Sunday, according to flight tracker FlightAware. That was the highest rate by far of the major U.S. airlines. Next in line was Allegiant, which canceled 6% of its flights. American Airlines canceled 5% of its flights, while Spirit canceled 4% on Sunday, according to the flight tracker. On Saturday, Southwest Airlines canceled more than 800 flights.

Southwest Airlines said in an emailed statement that it had experienced weather challenges in its Florida airports at the beginning of the weekend, which were compounded by unexpected air traffic control issues in the same region. Those issues triggered delays and prompted significant cancellations for the airlines beginning Friday evening.

“We’ve continued diligent work throughout the weekend to reset our operation with a focus on getting aircraft and crews repositioned to take care of our customers," said Southwest Airlines. “With fewer frequencies between cities in our current schedule, recovering during operational challenges is more difficult and prolonged."

The company said that it's allowing customers to explore self-service rebooking options on Southwest.com, where they can get updates on the status of their travel.

However, Henry H. Harteveldt, president and travel industry analyst at The Atmosphere Research Group, based in San Francisco, points to other causes for the cancellations.

First, he says Southwest has scheduled more flights than it can handle, a problem that started in June. He also noted that Southwest operates what’s known as a point-to-point route network, and when a delay occurs, it “cascades” along the remaining flight segments. That's because, for example, a Southwest flight departing Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for the airline's home base of Dallas may make multiple stops along the way.

But Harteveldt says the most troubling reason is the likelihood that some pilots who oppose Southwest's decision to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations are participating in an illegal job action where they call in sick or are engaging in a “work slowdown.”

In a statement Saturday, the airline’s pilot union, Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said that's not the case.

“SWAPA is aware of operational difficulties affecting Southwest Airlines today due to a number of issues, but we can say with confidence that our pilots are not participating in any official or unofficial job actions," it said.

Harteveldt noted Southwest's woes could linger and affect its fourth quarter financial performance.

“All of this is happening as people are in the midst of booking their Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Year holiday travel,” he said. “It’s very possible that some people who might normally book on Southwest may see this news and choose to fly other airlines.”

___

Follow Anne D’Innocenzio: http://twitter.com/ADInnocenzio

___

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the last name of the analyst at The Atmosphere Research Group. It is Henry Harteveldt, not Harteveltd.