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After an epic meltdown, is it still smart to book with Southwest Airlines?

Jan. 18, 2023
7 min read
Planes at John Wayne Airport
After an epic meltdown, is it still smart to book with Southwest Airlines?
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Is it still smart to book a flight with Southwest?

That’s the lingering question on many travelers’ minds after Southwest Airlines canceled more than 15,000 flights during a holiday travel season meltdown that left customers scrambling for backup plans. Some never even made it to their destinations, abandoning their plans altogether after the cancellations left them with scant rescheduling options.

Despite the reservations some flyers may have, the short answer is that yes, it’s safe to book a flight with Southwest going forward.

TPG spoke to several travel experts and the consensus was Southwest is still the most convenient option for people in many cities, so a flight with the Dallas-based carrier isn't easily avoidable.

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“Southwest is by far the most important airline in most of the midsized cities in the U.S.,” Brett Snyder, the author of the blog Cranky Flier, said.

Snyder added that Southwest also has an outsize presence in many larger cities such as Chicago, Denver, Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles.

“People would be crazy for writing off an airline because they've had a meltdown because every airline has had a meltdown,” he said.

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Brian Sumers, the editor-in-chief of The Airline Observer, echoed Synder’s sentiments.

“The closest airport to me is Burbank, California,” Sumers said. “Next month, I'm gonna fly from Burbank to Phoenix on Southwest. You know, I guess I could avoid that. I could fly another airline from LAX, I could fly American Airlines. But Southwest is just so big and so important to so many places that they're hard to avoid and I don't think we necessarily need to avoid them.”

As a winter storm roiled much of the U.S. shortly before Christmas, every major U.S. carrier suffered disruptions. However, for Southwest, those disruptions continued well past the storm. For example, the airline canceled around 62% of its flights on Dec. 28, with severe disruptions lasting through the end of the year.

The carrier’s largest operational meltdown — which the company expects to cost up to $825 million — was widely attributed to a botched recovery effort following the winter storm and its outdated technology.

Related: Flight delayed or canceled? Here are the best credit cards with trip delay reimbursement

Making matters worse, another recent meltdown sparked by the Federal Aviation Administration’s system outage resulted in thousands of flight delays across all U.S. airlines. Though that incident was beyond the airlines’ control, it still put the subject of flight delays back in the national spotlight.

At its peak, Southwest canceled almost 50% of its flights due to the FAA outage on Wednesday, according to flight tracking site FlightAware. Other airlines, like United Airlines and American Airlines, had comparable cancellation rates to Southwest.

While these past weeks have been anything but rosy for airlines, Southwest customers have expressed their frustrations with the many cancellations and delays that snarled their travel plans.

Chelsea Lauridsen, who works in software sales and is based in Phoenix, said she’s been a loyal Southwest customer for years. However, within the past year, she said she instead booked with other airlines like American and Delta Air Lines due to the many cancellations and delays she experienced with Southwest.

“It's frustrating because I am an avid Southwest lover and advocate,” Lauridsen said. “I think they have the best customer support. I think they value their customers but something has to change.”

Lauridsen was also caught in the middle of the carrier’s holiday mess — she and her husband flew from Phoenix to Grand Cayman in the Cayman Islands for a four-day vacation. While her Southwest flight to Grand Cayman was seamless, getting back to Phoenix was chaotic.

Southwest had no available flights from Grand Cayman to Phoenix that would get her back in time for work. So, she booked her return flight to Phoenix with American instead.

However, after missing a connecting American flight in Charlotte, Lauridsen and her husband again tried Southwest: They booked a flight from Charlotte to Phoenix, with a layover in Chicago. However, Lauridsen's flight from Chicago to Phoenix was delayed for a few hours, and she and her husband didn't return to their home in Phoenix until 3 a.m.

“I had to be at work at 7 a.m. the next morning so I'm thankful we made it home but, you know, [there were] still delays,” Lauridsen said.

Matt Musachio, a graduate student at Chicago College of Performing Arts, was in a similar bind. He and his family were traveling during the holidays from Baltimore to Fort Lauderdale for a cruise.

Southwest canceled that flight, so Musachio and his family drove from Baltimore to Richmond, Virginia, and rented a car. They then drove for more than 13 hours to catch their cruise in Florida.

Related: How to change or cancel a Southwest Airlines flight

“We couldn't get a single other flight in any other area of Florida or the D.M.V. area, even if we tried alternate airports,” Musachio said, referring to the colloquialism for the region around the nation's capital (the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia).

Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and founder of advisory firm Atmosphere Research, said he believes Southwest will take a different course of action to prevent an operational failure of this size from occurring again.

“I think that the airline learned a very painful lesson during its December disruption,” Harteveldt said.

Despite the experiences Lauridsen and Musachio had with Southwest, both said they wouldn’t shy away from flying with the carrier in the future.

“We like that we can take two free checked bags,” Musachio said. “I'm going in between Baltimore and Chicago a lot, and I also like that they fly into smaller airports like Midway. It's much easier to get to for me than O'Hare.”

Southwest’s holiday meltdown was historic, but other airlines have suffered operational collapses in the past 20 years. They eventually recovered to a point where the public has largely forgotten.

One of the worst operational disruptions was the 2000 United Airlines pilot slowdown, which forced the Chicago-based carrier to cancel hundreds of flights as contract talks with its pilots and mechanics reached a monthslong stalemate. As a result, many flyers turned to American Airlines at the time because it was an easy replacement, and the slowdown at United had lasted for months.

Related: 3 things to do if your flight is delayed

On Valentine’s Day in 2007, JetBlue’s operation collapsed as an ice storm pounded the eastern U.S. Most airlines at the time canceled flights, but JetBlue didn’t. This consequently overwhelmed its system and led to mass flight cancellations.

The incident set the stage for the ouster of the airline’s founder, David Neeleman, and even spurred new federal rules on long tarmac delays that remain in place today. With enough time in the rearview mirror, passengers eventually returned to JetBlue, whose reputation ultimately withstood the episode.

Similar recent issues — such as Spirit’s summer 2021 meltdown and American’s November mess during the same year after inclement weather in Dallas — also generated a wave of negative headlines. The heat of the spotlight eventually faded as airlines corrected their operations and returned to normalcy.

Southwest’s operational failure during the holidays may have been the worst in the airline’s history. Still, the carrier was eventually able to resume a normal flying schedule as the calendar flipped into January.

“It's never changed travelers' behavior,” Synder said. “I mean, you have isolated meltdowns — maybe in the short term, there's a hit but it's never had a lasting impact.”

Featured image by PAUL BERSEBACH/MEDIANEWSGROUP/ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER/GETTY IMAGES
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Best for the well-traveled foodie
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.
4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
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    Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.

    60,000 bonus points
  • Annual Fee

    $250
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

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  • 4x on dining at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets (on the first $25,000 in purchases per calendar year; then 1x)
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Cons

  • Weak on travel outside of flights and everyday spending bonus categories
  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees