Weather causes Southwest trouble at McCarran

After finishing their three-state holiday in the southwest, Melanie Luques and husband Stephen Mallison thought they had done everything right to get home as scheduled on Jan. 3.

They checked in online and arrived at McCarran International Airport more than two hours before the scheduled departure of their Southwest Airlines flight to Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Yet it still took two days to finish their trip after enduring a massive line at McCarran’s Terminal 1 and an unscheduled layover in Phoenix.

Scrambled flight plans have long been a fact of life when flying during the winter, largely depending on when Mother Nature draws the blizzard lottery ticket. Although other airlines had to rejigger their operations as well, only Southwest had a passenger line at McCarran that extended out the door and beyond the terminal, keeping some people waiting for hours.

What happened?

“Right now, we are focused on getting our operations back to a normal level,” Southwest spokesman Dan Landson said in a Jan. 6 statement. “We are working as fast as we can to get things moving. In the meantime, our leadership has been working around the clock to see what went wrong, what worked and how we can mitigate these challenges moving forward.”

The answers will matter at McCarran where Southwest is the largest airline, with about 40 percent of the market. The snafus come against a backdrop of Southwest confirming that 16 arriving flights had sat on the ground at Chicago Midway Airport for more than three hours Jan. 3 because all the gates were full.

Landson attributed the difficulties to the weather. Southwest did not want to endanger its ground crews by keeping them outdoors in extremely cold weather. “They can only spend a limited amount of time outdoors when it gets to be this cold,” he said. “It will take some time for our operations to get back on track.”

But Luques wasn’t buying it. “I firmly believe that the delays I and many other Southwest customers have experienced are due to poor management, planning and customer service,” she said in an email.

The couple’s flight was a nonstop to Raleigh-Durham, where the weather was not a problem. Despite following all the standard advice given to travelers, they were forced to stand in line at McCarran for five hours because they wanted to check a suitcase. During that time, not only did their original flight take off but a second one as well.

Then, they rebooked themselves to Atlanta, at least to reach the right region of the country, but saw that flight canceled while sitting through a delay. After spending 15 hours at McCarran, they opted to go to Phoenix as an impromptu first leg eastward. On Sunday, they finally made it home.

Still, it may be a while before Southwest is in their travel plans. “We were treated poorly (and) this has cost us a lot of money (food, lodging, transportation),” Luques said.

Although Southwest has long enjoyed top-of-the-chart customer ratings, the recent problems come when its on-time record has ranked last or next-to-last for three months running, according to U.S. Transportation Department statistics.

JetBlue, which scrubbed about 300 flights on Jan. 6, said new federal rules providing more rest time for flight crews contribute to passenger dislocation. “Even as airports began to reopen, newly launched (Federal Aviation Administration) rules on pilot duty times caused delayed flights to quickly turn into canceled ones,” an entry on JetBlue’s blog said.


The valley’s transportation future may not be pretty.

In a Jan. 7 presentation to the Clark County Commission, longtime consultant Tom Skancke said that Interstate 15 will have no more room to expand once Project Neon, which would untangle the stretch of freeway south of the Spaghetti Bowl interchange, is finished. Although an alternate beltway to direct some traffic around Las Vegas instead of through it may be the future, he conceded it “will not be popular.”

As it stands, congestion on Interstate 15 and nearby streets from Maryland Parkway to Valley View Boulevard has reached the “massive” level during certain peak times, he said.

Skancke, who is CEO of the business booster group Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, also made a pitch for indexing the gas tax to inflation.

“It sends a message to the world that our community is keeping up with growth and paying for it as we go,” he said.

Beyond that, he pushed to launch a tax based on miles driven rather than gallons of gas burned, although discussion is in the early stages. The gas tax will face future constraints as car mileage improves and people drive less, he predicted.