Southwest Airlines chaos: Police threaten to arrest stranded passengers waiting to rebook canceled flights

Southwest Airlines passengers are not having a good week. 

As passengers across the country continue to desperately find ways to get home following after the cancelation of thousands of flights over the holiday weekend, one viral video appears to show the chaos in a nutshell. 

In the video, originally posted to TikTok, police officers can be seen apparently threatening to arrest stranded passengers. 

The footage shows Nashville International Airport’s Department of Public Safety officer ordering passengers who gathered after their Southwest flight was canceled to leave the area or be arrested. 

One woman can be heard in the video identifying herself as an attorney asking the officer to clarify the threat. The officer says because the passenger's flight has been canceled they aren't valid ticket holders and are not allowed to be in the area. 

Linsey Simmons, who previously ran for Congress shared the video on Twitter asking U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg to address the madness. 

In a video posted to his Twitter account, Buttigieg said "Southwest Airlines needs to do everything it takes to get stranded passengers to their destinations - and cover their expenses (like meals, hotel, ground transport) in the meantime. We’ll continue to hold them accountable with all tools available to USDOT."

Buttigieg, who has criticized airlines for previous disruptions, said that "meltdown" was the only word he could think of to describe this week’s events at Southwest. He noted that while cancellations across the rest of the industry declined to about 4% of scheduled flights, they remained above 60% at Southwest.

Travelers who counted on Southwest Airlines to get them home suffered another wave of canceled flights Wednesday, and pressure grew on the federal government to help customers get reimbursed for unexpected expenses they incurred because of the airline’s meltdown.

Exhausted Southwest travelers tried finding seats on other airlines or renting cars to get to their destination, but many remained stranded. The airline’s CEO said it could be next week before the flight schedule returns to normal.

Adontis Barber, a 34-year-old jazz pianist from Kansas City, Missouri, had camped out in the city’s airport since his Southwest flight was canceled Saturday, hoping to reach a New Year's gig in Washington, D.C.

He left his airport vigil Wednesday. "I give up," he said. "I’m starting to feel homeless."

By early afternoon on the East Coast, about 90% of all canceled flights Wednesday in the U.S. were on Southwest, according to the FlightAware tracking service.

Other airlines recovered from ferocious winter storms that hit large swaths of the country over the weekend, but not Southwest, which scrubbed 2,500 flights Wednesday and 2,300 more on Thursday.

The Dallas airline was undone by a combination of factors including an antiquated crew-scheduling system and a network design that allows cancellations in one region to cascade throughout the country rapidly. Those weaknesses are not new — they helped cause a similar failure by Southwest in October 2021.

The U.S. Transportation Department is now investigating what happened at Southwest, which carries more passengers within the United States than any other airline. A Senate committee promises to investigate too.

In a video that Southwest posted late Tuesday, CEO Robert Jordan said Southwest would operate a reduced schedule for several days but hoped to be "back on track before next week."

"We have some real work to do in making this right," said Jordan, a 34-year Southwest veteran who became CEO in February. "For now, I want you to know that we are committed to that."

The Associated Press contributed to this story. It was reported from Los Angeles.