AUSTIN (KXAN) — “I was just kind of scrambling,” said Jim Briggs, who is visiting his family in Concord, California.
Briggs said he got a text from Southwest Airlines Monday night that his flight back to Austin on Wednesday was canceled.
The company canceled nearly 8,000 flights for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
“My flight getting out here was delayed about six hours, which was annoying, but not a big deal,” Briggs said.
He said the next Southwest flight didn’t appear to be for about another week, and other airlines were charging at least $1,400 for a one-way ticket.
Briggs was telling some other Austin musicians about his ordeal in a group chat.
“Kind of half joking, I was like, ‘Hell, maybe I’ll just rent a car.’ And my buddy who lives in Phoenix said, ‘You know, if you do… If you want to pick me up, like, I’ll go halfsies with you,'” Briggs said.
So, he’ll be driving about 12 hours to Phoenix starting Wednesday morning, then another roughly 15 hours with his friend to Austin.
He said the rental car cost $400.
“I mean, that’s a lot, but when you’re comparing that to a $1,400 flight, it’s not so bad. And we’re splitting the cost, splitting gas,” he said.
Scott Nakaatari is trying to go the other way. He and his friend were supposed to fly Southwest from Austin to Los Angeles on Thursday but already got an alert that their flight was canceled.
They booked with Alaskan Airlines, instead, to San Diego.
“Instead of the $250 back on Southwest, it was $1,200 first class to San Diego, which was the only flight available,” Nakaatari said.
He said they still have to figure out how to get from San Diego to Los Angeles and will probably rent a car, get a rideshare or buy a train ticket.
Nakaatari and his friend are renting a car for the rest of their stay in Austin.
Both Enterprise and Hertz told KXAN they are seeing a surge in demand after flight cancellations.
Hertz said it had a record call volume on Monday.
“While the holiday season is always a busy one for Hertz, we are seeing a surge in demand for car rentals across the country and in Austin due to severe weather impacts and widespread flight cancellations. On Monday, our U.S. Contact Center experienced record call volume and we continue to see sustained demand for bookings, reservation modifications and one-way rentals. From our frontline operations teams to our social customer care agents, Hertz employees are diligently working to serve those whose travel plans have been disrupted to get them on the road as quickly as possible.”Hertz car rental
For Briggs, it is extra travel expenses and lost income. He makes about half his income from gigs.
“I’m already missing out on one gig that was supposed to. It’s Thursday night, so had to cancel that one,” he said.
Now, he’s determined to drive halfway across the country to make his next show at the Swan Dive on Red River Street.
“It’s like a big New Year’s party. That one would have been, that would have been a problem to miss that one,” he said.
What’s the problem?
In a statement on Monday, Southwest apologized for the delays and cancellations.
“With consecutive days of extreme winter weather across our network behind us, continuing challenges are impacting our Customers and Employees in a significant way that is unacceptable,” the company wrote.
Long-time employees with the company’s attendant union said the root issue is their “archaic” technology that can’t handle today’s demand.
“It’s the saddest day in Southwest Airlines history,” President of the airline’s flight attendants union Lyn Montgomery said. “All of this is generated by Southwest Airlines’ decisions. It’s not about Winter Storm Elliot. This is something that we actually have forecasted. We run the operation so hot that one day, it just isn’t going to be recoverable when we hit these irregular operations issues.”
She said flight crews rely on telephone calls rather than an automated online system for reassignments and rescheduling.
“So if you have 1,200 changes at one time, that means a crew scheduling team has to reach out to 1,200 individuals. We have had flight attendants be on hold … anywhere from three hours to 17 hours just to wait to find out [their] next assignment.”
That schedule should slow for Montgomery and her peers, with Southwest planning to operate at about one-third of its typical schedule “for the next several days.”
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said he told Southwest’s CEO he expects the airline to “fulfill their commitments to customers,” which includes issuing refunds and vouchers for meals and transportation.
“Just to give you a little bit of perspective, the overall cancellation rate right now coming out of the storm for all the other airlines combined is around 5% of flights. For Southwest, the latest numbers that I’ve seen are in the 70s, somewhere over 70%,” Buttigieg said in an interview with NBC News.
“At a minimum, there needs to be cash refunds for the canceled flights and they need to be taking care of passengers where they got stuck with meals, hotel compensation,” he said.
According to its website, Southwest said it will honor “reasonable” requests for meal, hotel and alternate transportation reimbursement.
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