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Southwest Airlines disaster forces travelers to wait hours for rental cars

Southwest Airlines canceled most of its flights this week in order to "reset" and won’t be fully operational until 2023. | Kevin V. Nguyen/The Standard

Travelers who booked flights with Southwest Airlines this holiday season were suddenly left hanging—they’re either stuck in airports, waiting hours for bags at their destinations or missing out on that expensive family vacation

Since Dec. 22, the second biggest airline in the country has canceled about 15,700 flights in total. According to FlightAware, a flight tracking service, Southwest has canceled nearly 3,000 flights a day this week, accounting for around 84% of all canceled flights in the United States at one point. As of writing, that percentage has dropped down to around 58%. 

Southwest officials said the only way the carrier could restore its regular flight schedule was to cancel most of its flights this week, aiming for a recovery before next week—taking the crisis into the new year. In the meantime, the company is trying to reposition staff, planes and crew.

But with Christmas already well behind them, many Southwest customers cannot afford to wait that long. Their only options are to book an entirely new flight with a different airline (with limited protections from alleged price-gouging) or hit the road

Southwest Airlines canceled most of its flights this week in order to "reset" and won’t be fully operational until 2023. | Kevin V. Nguyen/The Standard.

“I can’t afford to miss another day of work because of this,” said Ismail Mitchell as he waited in line at the San Jose International Airport car rental lobby. He and his wife had flown to the Bay Area to spend Christmas Day with their family and planned to fly back the day after. 

But with no affordable or timely option to fly back, he opted to just pay out-of-pocket for a rental car and drive home to Los Angeles. 

“All we can do now is save our receipts and hope [Southwest] makes good,” he said.  

READ MORE: 'Santa' Misses Christmas Stuck in San Jose Thanks to Southwest

Airports like San Jose International and Oakland International are major Southwest hubs, meaning the airline’s sudden failure has all but paralyzed air travel at both locations. 

Hours of Queuing 

So Mitchell and hundreds of other travelers spent their entire Wednesday morning waiting in line at the car rental lobby hoping to secure a way out of town. 

A backlog of returned cars awaiting service at San Jose International Airport on Dec. 28, 2022 | Kevin V. Nguyen/The Standard

Several customers told The Standard the wait time to see an agent was at least two and a half hours, irrespective of an online reservation. Then, once they signed their paperwork, customers had to brave yet another long line at the car pickup areas where a backlog of returned vehicles were hastily cleaned and sent off again. 

A reservation agent at the San Jose division of Avis, a major car rental company, not authorized to speak publicly, told The Standard that the division was booking nearly five times more rentals than the average holiday season because of Southwest’s cancellations. 

They said the long wait times are due to staffing issues and recommended customers book and sign their rental contracts online before arriving at the airport location. Attempts to reach Avis’s corporate office were unsuccessful. 

There are 11 car rental agencies at San Jose International, but the line for Avis and Budget (part of the same group) was by far the longest, stretching a visibly long distance. 

The line for the Avis and Budget car rental desk at San Jose International Airport on Dec. 28, 2022 | Kevin V. Nguyen/The Standard

“I’m waiting in this [Avis] line because they have the best prices,” Mitchell said. “But damn, my time is money, too, right?” 

What Caused the Southwest Meltdown?

Unlike other major airlines, Southwest does not operate in partnership with other airlines to assist with re-bookings. So when cancellations occur, it prefers to book another flight on its schedule or compensate customers with vouchers. 

It has also been able to offer competitive pricing by operating with fewer open seats or backup flight crews. More distinctively, Southwest uses a “point-to-point” route model that lets travelers fly directly to and from smaller cities without having to stop at a major metropolitan hub in order to change planes. 

According to industry experts, this system leaves Southwest little room for error, as standby crews and pilots are not as readily available. Once a massive weather event such as the recent “bomb cyclone” strikes, its entire network is vulnerable to collapse. 

A cordoned off area of unclaimed luggage at San Jose International Airport on Dec. 28, 2022 | Kevin V. Nguyen/The Standard

The airline initially tried blaming its issues solely on the weather, but has since acknowledged that its technology and logistics need updating after every other major airline has rebounded—while Southwest has not. 

In a statement Wednesday, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) said this meltdown “was not a surprise to anyone but the leadership of Southwest Airlines.” 

The Transport Workers Union Local 556, which represents flight attendants at Southwest, also said on Twitter that the meltdown was avoidable. The union said the airline should have invested in passengers and workers, rather than recently paying dividends to shareholders.

Southwest has had systemwide meltdowns before. In October 2021, the airline canceled more than 2,000 flights over four days, blaming bad weather in Florida. 

The Washington Post also uncovered an internal company memo on Dec. 21 that foreshadowed the current crisis.

A Southwest Airlines spokesperson urged passengers affected by travel disruptions to use this link for advice.

Kevin V. Nguyen can be reached at