Flight cancellations by Southwest, other carriers to face DIA scrutiny

Denver International Airport will conduct “after-action reviews” with Southwest Airlines — which is still struggling with major cancellations — and other big carriers as the aviation system recovers from last week’s sub-zero winter storm and its aftermath.

United and Frontier airlines also will be asked to participate in the reviews over the next two weeks, DIA said in its announcement Wednesday. The three airlines are the airport’s top-ranked carriers by passenger traffic.

Since Christmas Day, United and Frontier largely have recovered from major disruptions to their schedules. But Southwest, which is working to fix staffing and system challenges that outlasted the storm, again canceled more than half its flights to and from DIA Wednesday, and preemptively for Thursday, too.

“Though airline accountability is imperative for this latest event, we want to determine why flight disruptions and delays happened and how we can improve the overall operations here at DEN going forward for the good of our flying passengers,” airport CEO Phil Washington said in a news release.

He also outlined the airport’s efforts to assist with the continuing disruptions.

“We have asked the Denver Police Department to increase security around the baggage claim area until passengers can be reunited with their bags,” Washington said. A major pileup of unclaimed bags has taken shape, particularly near Southwest’s baggage claims, in areas that are cordoned off but visible to the public.

And he said airport employees were “continuing to provide blankets, diapers and other amenities for stranded passengers” while they wait for rebooked flights.

Washington compared the coming after-action reviews to others he has relied on during his careers in the military and the transportation sector, including leading transit agencies. The airport’s news release says those reviews will examine the disruptions that happened and the reasons why, while looking for lessons to apply in the next big storm.

“I believe it’s critically important that we seize the opportunity to learn from every incident,” Washington said.

While DIA saw major disruptions over the last week, so did other major airports around much of the country. It’s unclear which were due to localized or system-wide causes, though there likely were some of both.

The Denver Post previously reported that as the cold front and winter storm moved into Colorado, Southwest contended with a shortage of ramp agents at DIA that prompted the airline on Dec. 21 to declare a “state of operational emergency” locally. At the same time, the airline has attributed its continuing cancellations this week in part to shortcomings of its flight crew scheduling system, a national problem.

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