Bryan Ender and his family of four, who were visiting from Albuquerque for the holidays, found out Tuesday their flight out of Portland the next day had been canceled.
When his calls to Southwest Airlines were repeatedly met with a busy signal, he and his father-in-law drove down from Boothbay to the Portland International Jetport just to try to talk to someone who could help them rebook it.
Ender is among thousands across the country stranded after Southwest Airlines, struggling to cope in the wake of last week’s winter storm, canceled more than 65% of its flights this week, including almost all those scheduled in Portland. The airline will operate just over a third of its usual schedule in the days ahead as crews get back to where they need to be after the storm.
Ender’s family won’t arrive home until next Tuesday.
Most major U.S. airlines were broadsided by the massive storm, but had largely recovered by Monday. Except for Southwest.
Zachary Sundquist, assistant director at the jetport, said the airline has canceled roughly 20 flights since Friday, including five Tuesday, affecting about 3,000 passengers.
And while other airlines seem to now be running as scheduled, Southwest canceled its Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday flights into and out of Portland, as well as at least one on Thursday.
Because of the busy holiday season, Southwest doesn’t have any extra seats available on existing flights for rebooking passengers until Jan. 1, Sundquist said.
“Southwest staff here has been working hard to get as many passengers taken care of as possible,” Sundquist said, adding that it’s “not an ideal situation because of the holiday.”
He encouraged passengers to check the status of their flights before coming to the airport.
The cancellations have triggered a closer look at Southwest operations by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which called the rate of cancellations “disproportionate and unacceptable,” and sought to ensure that the airline was sticking by its obligations to stranded customers.
Kailee Humphrey was supposed to fly to Nashville on Thursday morning to celebrate her 21st birthday, which was on Christmas.
But her flight was canceled and the airline couldn’t rebook her until Jan 1, just a day before she was supposed to come back.
The South Berwick resident, who was trying to find a flight on another airline, said she was stressed out and annoyed.
“This morning when I saw it I was kind of like, are you kidding me?” she said.
Div Kumar, 36, and Ryan Cadorette, 26, were supposed to fly home to Houston on Wednesday after visiting Cadorette’s family in Saco for the holidays.
Southwest canceled their flight and, unable to wait an additional week or more for another Southwest flight back, they chose to book with another airline – for more than twice the cost of their original tickets.
They were scheduled to fly out of Boston, but, like Ender, were unable to reach Southwest on the phone. So they decided to try sorting it out in Portland, where they could speak with a Southwest ticketing agent in person.
In the grand scheme of things, they’re fortunate, Kumar said. They’re able to afford the additional costs (train tickets, plane tickets and an extra day of pet sitting), but others are not.
“I don’t know how the airlines can get away with it,” he said.
Cadorette agreed. If it were a blizzard, or if they had been scheduled to fly home during Friday’s storm, that would be understandable. But most other airlines are not having similar problems with their flights.
“We’ll see where the accountability lies,” he said. “It can’t go unchecked.”
According to The Associated Press, Southwest spokesman Jay McVay said at a news conference that cancellations snowballed as storm systems moved across the country, leaving flight crews and planes out of place.
“So we’ve been chasing our tails, trying to catch up and get back to normal safely, which is our number one priority, as quickly as we could,” he said. “And that’s exactly how we ended up where we are today.”
But it’s unclear why other airlines have recovered while Southwest is still floundering.
American, United, Delta and JetBlue were experiencing cancellation rates of 0-2% by Tuesday, compared to Southwest’s 65%.
The Department of Transportation said on Twitter that it was “concerned by Southwest’s unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays & reports of lack of prompt customer service.” The tweet said the department would look into whether Southwest could have done anything about the cancellations and whether the airline was complying with its customer service plan.
Ender, the father from Albuquerque, said he could have taken the $200 per person voucher to book with another airline, but it still would have cost the family about $2,500 to get home on time. So he took the later flight home, with a refund and about $1,500 in vouchers.
In the meantime, they’re going to make the most of the extra few days in Maine.
“If you’re going to be stuck somewhere, it might as well be here,” he said.