The motorcoach industry has been stepping up after Southwest Airlines’ operational meltdown left thousands of travelers stranded at airports over the holiday week.
Operators say they tried to do even more but some have been rebuffed by Southwest. Still, motorcoach companies came through and carried many passengers to their destinations.
One group of stranded Southwest passengers arrived at Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport not by plane, but by bus after a 24-hour ride from LaGuardia Airport in New York, reported ABC13.
In another example, Thrasher Brothers Trailways in Birmingham, Alabama, saved the day for a collegiate client after one of its sports teams’ flight was canceled an hour before it was supposed to be picked up.
The motorcoach operator drove a swim team from Birmingham to Miami. But the 13-hour trip wasn’t without logistical challenges that required two drivers to make it work, says Alan Thrasher, company president.
“Birmingham Southern College Swim Team had their flight canceled as they were loading the bus to go to the airport at 4:30 p.m.,” Thrasher said. “They delayed to give me time to send a driver five hours down the road to a hotel. The bus pulled away loaded at 5 a.m., swapped out drivers during a meal stop and arrived safely in Miami at 7 p.m. They didn’t miss any of their planned swim meets.”
Toby Wilcox, head coach of the Birmingham Southern College swim team, couldn’t have been more appreciative of Thrasher Brothers Trailways’ quick response.
“When the airline canceled our flights, I was able to reach out to Thrasher Trailways, and they bent over backward to get my team down to Miami,” Wilcox said in a message.
“Our trip wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for them working with us. So grateful!”
More athletes transported
Mark Reddock, general manager at Getaway Tours & Charters in Milan, Michigan, says his company did similar rescues for two collegiate clients. One required getting a cheer team to a competition in San Antonio, and the other required bringing back a team from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport after its flight was canceled.
Getting the cheer team to San Antonio also required some complicated logistics, but the squad got there in time for its competition.
“At first, we figured we couldn’t do it because no driver can drive straight through from Toledo to Texas,” Reddock said. “What they ended up doing is leaving at 3 p.m. Monday and driving to St. Louis, where they spent the night, and then driving during the day to Plano, Texas, where the bus that was scheduled to pick them up originally from the airport met them and drove them to San Antonio.”
Airline failings being examined
Southwest has attributed its mass cancellations to winter storm delays, aggressive flight scheduling and outdated infrastructure.
Airports most affected by Southwest’s problems have been Denver International, Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas, Chicago Midway International, Baltimore/Washington International, Nashville International, and Dallas Love Field.
Southwest is under scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN he “made clear that our department will be holding them accountable for their responsibilities to customers, both to get them through this situation and to make sure that this can’t happen again.”
“From what I can tell, Southwest is unable to locate even where their own crews are, let alone their own passengers, let alone baggage,” Buttigieg told CNN.
The airline’s issues have been attributed to outdated scheduling software and a complex route network. Unlike other major airlines, Southwest doesn’t have a hub system but uses a point-to-point network. Its software system resulted in crews being sent to the wrong airports, causing shortages.
Thrasher thinks it would have been smart for Southwest to reach out to the motorcoach industry for help. After all, federal and state agencies turn to the industry during hurricanes and other natural disasters to quickly move large groups to safety.
“We should have been hauling people out of those airports” when the flights were canceled, he said.
Trying to do more
On a Facebook page devoted to motorcoach company owners, Thrasher encouraged owners and leadership to reach out to Southwest with offers of help with ground transportation for stranded passengers.
“They’re telling us they don’t need buses,” said Thrasher, who is a board member of the United Motorcoach Association.
A Southwest spokesperson said “In certain cases, we did provide transportation via buses to our Customers. I don’t have information on how broadly the process was used, given the scale of the disruption, but it was a tool we utilized.” The spokesperson added that stranded passengers needing assistance should go to these websites: https://www.southwest.com/traveldisruption/ and https://www.southwest.com/baginfo/.
Jack Kaufman is vice president of Timi’s Tours in Moweaqua, Illinois, about 200 miles south of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
“I called Southwest and offered to send them buses. They said no,” Kaufman said.
The Southwest response is disappointing, says Thrasher.
“We have the ability to help get these people to move,” he said. “It’s a sad thing that Southwest isn’t bringing us in to help. We are used to doing these kinds of large operations during hurricane evacuations, and yet we’re not being called on to do what we’re able to do. So we’re watching people sit at airports for days.”