‘Mayhem in the airport:’ The Southwest Airlines holiday meltdown from those who lived it

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines disrupted nearly 3 million passenger flights and thousands of employees during its historic holiday meltdown.

As Southwest Airlines spiraled out of control during its 16,700 cancellation holiday meltdown, so did the plans for passenger Brenda Angeles, pilot Seth Kornblum and flight attendant Kristen Loucks.

For Dallas business consultant Angeles, there was panic as Southwest canceled her flight and said another wouldn’t be available for five days. Kornblum raced against a clock as delay after delay wrenched his flying schedule. Loucks was helpless as she sat in an employee lounge at the Las Vegas airport while travelers fumed about more cancellations.

However it’s measured, the December 2022 holiday meltdown will go down as one of the biggest debacles in the 51-year history of Southwest Airlines. Nearly 3 million passengers had flight segments canceled. Southwest expects a $725 million to $825 million financial hit, including $300 flight credits to passengers, efforts to return luggage, bonus pay to employees and a massive blow to its reputation.

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Southwest’s troubles started with a winter storm a month ago and two days of near-zero temperatures and high winds in areas such as Denver and Chicago, where the carrier’s two biggest airport bases are located. U.S. carriers canceled a combined 8,250 flights those two days, according to But while most airline cancellations declines on Christmas Eve as carriers got planes, flight attendants and pilots back to work, Southwest’s troubles were only starting.

The initial storm-related cancellations overwhelmed Southwest’s pilot and flight attendant rescheduling software system as it struggled to reassign crews to cover flights. Each day the cancellations grew and the solutions became harder to find.


“It was really the 24th that it looked like we were diverging from the industry recovery,” CEO Bob Jordan said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News on Jan. 12. “Now, we had a good plan to go solve that overnight. The same thing happened on the 25th. We had a good plan to start the day reasonably well on the 26th. When we woke up, it wasn’t possible to get all those past problems cleared. We were in worse shape than expected.”

Dec. 25: ‘The delay kept going and I couldn’t catch up on the time’

Seth Kornblum knew he had problems before he arrived at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif., for a 57-minute flight to San Jose on Christmas morning. Another pilot in the van from the hotel had called the company three times the night before to alert them that the flight’s captain wasn’t there.


“I already knew the wheels were coming off,” said Kornblum, a 28-year pilot and captain who also serves in Southwest Airlines Pilots Association leadership as the head of the contract administration department, which helps enforce the union’s contract with the company.

By Christmas day, Southwest had spent three days struggling with cancellations, but a lighter load and good weather on that Sunday were supposed to give the airline time to recover and reset for the expected rush of passengers to start the week on Monday.

Kornblum was looking forward to a “cakewalk” day and bonus pay for the holiday.

He was scheduled for five legs that day, starting with the flight from Santa Ana to San Jose, then heading back to Santa Ana before going to Phoenix, Las Vegas and back to Los Angeles.

When he reported at 7:15 a.m., Southwest gate agents were having trouble getting the flight crew the required passenger manifest listing everyone who bought a ticket.

“We took over an hour delay and had to go through the cabin with a printed paper copy of what we thought was the passenger list,” he said.

The airport was already filled with passengers who slept overnight because of previous delays. With unrelated computer problems, Southwest employees couldn’t figure out how to get tickets for any of those delayed passengers, leaving Kornblum’s plane 90 minutes late and with 19 empty seats.


Airlines schedule extra time to allow for more “on-time” arrivals and pilots have the ability to fly slightly faster, so Kornblum and the crew of Southwest flight 1574 pulled into San Jose at 10:12 a.m., only 57 minutes behind schedule. Kornblum was determined to make up time throughout the day.

“So now back in Orange County, there’s no gates because of all of the issues,” he said. “You can’t get an open gate unless an airplane clears the gate, and all the other planes were delayed, too.”

That added another hour. Flying on the same plane to depart for Phoenix and already late, one of the flight attendants scheduled for the flight was nowhere to be found. It turns out he was home, hundreds of miles away because an earlier flight to get him to Phoenix was canceled.

“I only found this out because one of the flight attendants on board said she was friends with the guy and that she talked to him hours ago,” Kornblum said. “I took that crew list and was going gate to gate to gate trying to find crews on this list.


“So now I’m on a scavenger hunt inside the terminal trying to find a flight attendant that’s legal,” he added, referring to Federal Aviation Administration-mandated limits on hours flown by flight attendants and pilots. “They had no idea where anyone was.”

When he found a flight attendant able to fly with him, it took two hours to get the assignment approved because phone lines were overwhelmed.

The flight was supposed to land in Phoenix at 2:15 p.m. but did not leave Orange County until 5:22 p.m. and landed nearly five hours late in Arizona.


Kornblum had managed to keep his original flight plan with one leg remaining but was five hours behind schedule. In Phoenix, he picked up several pilots and flight attendants flying to Las Vegas for later flights.

“As we were pulling out, we were within minutes of our FAA legal departure time due to crew duty constraints for myself and my first officer,” he said.

He landed at 8:09 p.m. mountain time at Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas, five hours late.

He was also out of hours. Kornblum waited on hold with crew scheduling but no one answered. With no hours left to fly, he rented a car to drive back to Los Angeles where he was planning to stay with friends.


His last scheduled trip, Southwest Airlines flight 753, was canceled.

“I didn’t want to just leave, but what else could I do?,” Kornblum said.

Dec. 25: ‘The clock is ticking and no one could get through to scheduling’

Flight attendant and TWU Local 556 union board member Kristen Loucks woke up Christmas to a canceled flight schedule, meaning she still needed to be at Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas to pick up any flight reassignments.


Her schedule was supposed to start at 2:50 p.m. for a flight an hour later to Houston with a connection that night to El Paso. That would set her up for a flight the following day at 6:05 p.m. to fly to Phoenix and then back to Las Vegas to end her two-day trip.

Across the country, Southwest was in the midst of canceling about 1,600 flights, roughly 40% of its schedule, because it could not staff flights with pilots and flight attendants.

When Loucks walked into the Southwest crew lounge, it was packed with flight attendants with cell phones in hand, waiting on hold for crew scheduling to get reassigned to new flights. The company had ordered pizza and Mexican food for those working the holidays.

“You have to call scheduling to leave the airport to be released,” Loucks said. “They were trying to call scheduling, especially the ones who’d been on duty since 4 a.m.”


Since she lived nearby, Loucks was able to leave that night and come back the next day for her shift to start. But other flight attendants were scrambling to find hotel rooms and figure out how to pay for them with the company’s phone lines overwhelmed.

Loucks came back on Dec. 26 to serve her shift and help out other flight attendants as a union representative. She was scheduled to fly again on Dec. 27 on a set of flights that were completely changed.

“It was literally mayhem in the airport,” she said. “When we saw that these people were stranded in airports and never had a Christmas, it was by far the most heartbreaking thing for us.”


Dec. 26: ‘Something must be wrong, there’s no way’

Ahead of a family dinner on her last day of Christmas vacation in Southern California, Brenda Angeles panicked when she looked at her phone and saw that her flight back home to Dallas had been canceled.

“When we tried to reschedule the flight, it wasn’t giving us anything until the 31st and we were thinking ‘Something must be wrong, there’s no way,’” said Angeles, a 28-year-old technology business consultant who lives in Dallas. “We were so confused because the weather wasn’t really impacting any other airline.”

Angeles called Southwest, but she was on hold for more than an hour. Finally, Angeles and her husband drove to Long Beach Airport to try to talk to someone from Southwest and figure out how to get home. They waited for nearly four hours until Southwest brought in more employees to help.


No luck. She had to go back to her parents’ house.

Travelers waited in lines to reach Southwest Airlines ticket counters at Dallas Love Field...
Travelers waited in lines to reach Southwest Airlines ticket counters at Dallas Love Field Airport on Dec. 27. (Liesbeth Powers / Staff Photographer)

“We had to scramble to find dog sitters in Dallas and had to crash in my little brother’s room,” Angeles said.

Angeles also had to work the next day and since she was trying to unplug on vacation, she left her work laptop at home. The couple had to find another way to get home before Southwest could get them a flight four or five days later.


With thousands of people looking for rental cars, the price for vehicles shot up to about $500 a day, she said. Flights on other airlines were booked too.

They found someone to take care of their two cockapoo dogs and then booked a flight for $800 each on American Airlines for one-way tickets from Los Angeles International to DFW International Airport.

Angeles submitted her receipts to Southwest and was reimbursed for nearly everything, including the Fort Worth-based American Airlines tickets. She said she’ll be reluctant to fly with Southwest again in the near future.

“I’m really frustrated,” Angeles said. “It doesn’t make up for the hours at the airport, the stress — the entire thing.”

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