Southwest Airlines cut more than 90,000 flights from its November and December schedules, trying desperately to avoid empty aircraft heading into the important holiday travel season.

table: A man passes a flight status board at Love Field on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020, in Dallas.

© Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News/The Dallas Morning News/TNS
A man passes a flight status board at Love Field on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020, in Dallas.

Dallas-based Southwest cut 38,000 flights from its November plans, or about 36% of all trips, according to Dallas-based Airline Data Inc. The carrier also cut 55,000 flights for December, nearly half of its entire schedule.

“We recently revised our November and December published schedules aligning to what’s become a process through late spring, summer, and now autumn and into the holiday period … simply because fewer people are traveling,” said Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins in an email. “Of course, we’re adding in extra flights to lean in on the part of the Southwest Promise to keep middle seats open (currently through Nov. 30), but this is simply an effort to put forth a schedule that addresses the demand for travel that we’re seeing.”

As recently as May, Southwest was bullish on holiday travel with hopes of the COVID-19 pandemic dying down before the winter months and passengers eager to get back on planes. But the airline recovery has failed to materialize, and Southwest is pulling flights even though tickets have already been sold.

“Southwest is continuing to do what it and all the carriers have been doing since COVID began,” said Jeff Pelletier, managing director at Airline Data Inc. “This is going to be our new normal for the foreseeable future.”

Southwest has made this kind of move over and over again in the last few months, posting optimistic flight schedules and then cutting them four to six weeks in advance, ostensibly because tickets just aren’t selling. But the airline recovery has stalled, with passenger traffic down 68% compared to last year, according to air carrier trade group Airlines for America.

That’s forced airlines to remove flights from schedules, Pelletier said.

Southwest’s flight cuts come as airlines are begging federal leaders for more aid to keep employees on payrolls for another six months. Southwest has said it won’t furlough employees in 2020, but it might not be able to hold off on cutting employees much longer if another airline stimulus package doesn’t make it through Congress.

With the original payroll support program now expired, airlines are facing even greater pressure to break even on costs despite the lack of passengers. Southwest was losing $17 million a day during the third quarter.

But the changes cause headaches for passengers, who have been booking flights only to see their itineraries change radically a few weeks from departure.

Eileen Shafer bought a ticket on Southwest for her 16-year-old son to fly from Omaha, Neb., to West Palm Beach, Fla., for Christmas break. The original flight had a 55-minute layover in Atlanta.

But she got a notification this week that Southwest canceled that flight and rebooked her son on a flight stopping first in Chicago before traveling to Atlanta and Florida. Worst of all, she said, her son was now being forced to stay overnight in Chicago.

“I truly believe Southwest is running with skeleton crews, but still taking everyone’s money to give the appearance of business as usual,” Shafer said. “That way they are generating revenue without cost.”

Skeptical that the return flight on New Year’s Day would work out, she bought a flight on a different airline. By the time she was done buying the new ticket, the return flight on Southwest was canceled.

Shafer said she demanded a refund from Southwest and was told that she would get it, only to later get an email stating that her refund was being given in the form of travel funds.

Paul Hudson, a spokesman for consumer advocacy group Flyers Rights, said these kinds of cancellations and schedule changes should have ended after the first few months of the pandemic while airlines adjusted to demand.

“Airlines were willing to fly flights that were mostly empty before,” Hudson said. “But now they want flights fuller, at least 50% full.”

Hudson said that can be problematic because customers are entitled to a refund when their flight is canceled, but they can get a hassle from airlines who claim customers are being rescheduled.

Southwest understands that schedule changes may alter travelers’ itineraries, Hawkins said.

“But we recognize that means previously nonstop journeys now require a same-plane stop, or a connection, or a journey that might not seem a logical, straight line,” Hawkins said. “So, when we pushed new travel details to every person whose plans were modified as a result of the schedule change, we included additional flexibility for additional changes, along with our thanks for their patience.”

Southwest’s flight cuts for November and December will come during crucial holiday travel periods. Southwest cut about 29% of its Thanksgiving Day flights, including 29 flights at Dallas Love Field, where its corporate headquarters is located.

In December, Southwest is reducing its Christmas day flying by about 47% systemwide.

Southwest was the first of the major airlines to make big cuts to its November and December schedules, but other major airlines are expected to do the same soon.

Southwest has also only removed a handful of flights from January schedules and February and March schedules are mostly intact, Pelletier said.

“Just like the airlines are needing to be flexible and adaptable right now, so do the passengers,” Pelletier said.


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