Southwest cancels 2K+ flights, grounding its reputation as flight demand takes off

Tuesday, October 12, 2021 by Robinhood Snacks |
Two days late for the one-day NFT convention [bymuratdeniz/E+ via Getty Images]

Two days late for the one-day NFT convention [bymuratdeniz/E+ via Getty Images]

Scratch the fuzzy pink neck pillow... and forget the Biscoff cookies. Southwest Airlines cancelled 2K+ flights between Saturday and Monday, causing headaches from Miami to Denver. SW blamed the cancellation-palooza on air-traffic issues and bad weather. Awkward, since the FAA reported no air-traffic-control issues, and angry customers posted pics of baby-blue skies. SW shares sank as much as 3% yesterday.

The rumors were flying… unlike Southwest’s planes. Critics speculated that the cancellations stemmed from pilots’ massive “sick-in” protest of SW’s vaccine mandate. But SW — and the pilots’ union — said the cancellations weren’t part of a protest. Instead, they may have stemmed from Southwest’s opportunistic pandemic strategy:

  • Unpredictable moves: While American Airlines and Delta cut flights in smaller cities to save cash mid-pandemic, Southwest expanded to 18 new destinations to try to grab market share.
  • Predictable delays: As flight demand ramped up quickly, SW struggled to staff its new flights. This summer, one-third of SW flights were late — much more compared to those of its rivals.
  • In context: 30% of Southwest flights were cancelled on Sunday. The next most affected airline, American, cancelled just 2% of its flights.

It’s hard to refund a canceled rep… The financial cost of cancellations is bad for airlines, but the reputation cost is worse. Southwest soared to success with low prices and an aggressive expansion strategy. But after this PR nightmare, thousands of travelers may avoid it at a time when travel is rebounding. Domestic travel is nearly back to pre-pandemic levels, and is expected to keep growing. But Southwest could miss out.