Southwest continues cancellations as airline deals with fallout from ‘crash’

(CNN) — As Southwest Airlines scrambled to get its planes back in the air and get passengers home on Thursday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg took a tough line on the company.

He was relentless, calling the situation a complete “breakdown” of the system.

“Your company here has a lot of cleanup to do,” he said.

While the company had previously warned that it could take days to clear the backlog of stranded people and lost luggage, one of the unions expressed hope that the situation could improve by Friday at the earliest.

But more of the same is expected Thursday, with 2,356 Southwest flights already canceled, according to flight-tracking site FlightAware. Once again, the cancellations were almost exclusively at Southwest; as of 5 a.m. ET Thursday, there were only 2,435 canceled flights in the U.S. overall.

On top of that, Denver International Airport’s operations have been increasingly scrutinized under the microscope to understand what led to the debacle.

Denver’s “Emergency Action”

Southwest Airlines decided last week to implement an “operational emergency” staffing procedure at the Denver airport, as a massive winter storm hinted at a confluence of factors contributing to the airline’s national operational crisis.

Denver’s airport led the nation in cancellations on Wednesday and has been one of the country’s biggest problem spots for several days in a row.

In Denver, Southwest’s emergency staffing procedures include requesting a doctor’s note to verify the condition after an employee takes sick leave, a Southwest Airlines spokesperson told CNN on Wednesday.

The spokesman could not say whether the staffing policy would still be in place or when the special rules would end.

The Washington Post cites a Southwest memo dated Dec. 21 related to the operational emergency, in which the airline’s vice president for ground operations announced “an unusually high number of absenteeism” due to the disaster in Denver. , including sick afternoon and evening shift calls and personal days.

According to the company, the operational emergency — experienced only in Denver — was a far cry from the issues the company said led to a cascade of cancellations across the country.

Denver International Airport has announced plans to conduct a post-mortem review with the airport’s three major airlines — Frontier Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines — to learn from the disruption while it was still unclear.

A silver lining?

A passenger checks luggage in the baggage claim area inside a Southwest Airlines terminal in St. Louis. Louis Lambert International Airport on Wednesday.

A passenger checks luggage in the baggage claim area inside a Southwest Airlines terminal in St. Louis. Louis Lambert International Airport on Wednesday.

Jeff Robertson/AP

Meanwhile, union officials representing Southwest Airlines pilots said they hoped their flight schedules would be almost back to normal by the end of the work week.

Mike Santoro, vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday that they heard the airline was planning a “weekly flight.” Most of the flight schedules for five”.

“Weather, you know, was a big event that caused it, although that’s not an excuse for the lack of scheduling IT infrastructure that really caused the problem,” Santoro said.

Union officials said Southwest’s dispatch infrastructure has generally worked well, but added that this wasn’t the first time they’ve seen a breakdown cause delays. “When you have these major weather events, it always seems to break down,” Santoro said.

As of 5 a.m. ET Thursday, Southwest had canceled just 39 flights on Friday, according to FlightAware.

Tough numbers for Southwest Airlines this week

Passengers tag their luggage at Orlando International Airport on December 28, 2022.

Passengers tag their luggage at Orlando International Airport on December 28, 2022.

Paul Hennessy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Southwest Airlines operated about 2,510 of the 2,914 canceled flights from, to or from the U.S. on Wednesday, according to FlightAware. That’s 86% of all canceled flights in the US.

In total, Southwest has canceled about 15,700 flights since Dec. 22, when winter weather began disrupting air travel. (That figure includes flights that were already canceled on Thursday.)

Southwest Airlines has struggled to untangle itself from tangled cords Or cancellations starting with winter storms. Union leaders said software and manual processes were used to reassign flight crews whose hours were restricted for safety reasons.

Southwest Airlines spokesman Chris Perry told CNN the airline had no problems with employees not showing up for work.

“We have had no staffing issues at any of our sites throughout our operations and commend our staff for the heroic work they are doing,” Perry said.

now it’s a southwest problem

Other U.S. airlines flying under the same weather conditions have since recovered from storm disruptions.

In fact, American Airlines and United Airlines have already imposed price caps on some routes served by Southwest to make it easier for stranded passengers to get on the flight.

Southwest has no interline agreements with other carriers, allowing its agents to rebook passengers on different airlines, leaving travelers responsible for exploring other options.

Southwest Airlines plans to reduce its flight schedule in the coming days to relocate crew and planes, Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan said in a video released late Tuesday.

“We are optimistic that we will be back on track by next week,” he said before the pilots’ union announcement.

Buttigieg said he spoke directly with Jordan on Tuesday about the thousands of flights that were canceled this week.

“Their system is really broken,” Buttigieg told Blitzer. “I’ve made it clear that our department will hold them accountable to their customers, both to help them get through this and ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

A Department of Transportation (DOT) spokesman said those responsibilities include providing meal vouchers and hotel accommodations to passengers whose flights were “disrupted as a result of Southwest’s decisions and actions.”

American Airlines must also provide cash refunds to passengers whose flights have been canceled and choose not to travel, the DOT said.

Buttigieg told CNN that the Department of Transportation is prepared to fine Southwest if there is evidence the company failed to meet its legal obligations, but added that the department will take a closer look at the airline’s consistent customer service issues.

The secretary said he told CEO Jordan that he hoped Southwest would proactively offer refunds and reimbursement of expenses to affected passengers without them asking.

what the client should do

A travel expert has cautioned against handling chargebacks.

“Southwest said, ‘We will accommodate reasonable requests for reimbursement for meals, hotels and alternative transportation,'” noted Phil Dengler, co-founder of The Vacationer, a travel advisory site.

“While Southwest has been vague about the amount they will reimburse, I would avoid any expensive hotels or restaurants. Use Google Hotels to search for nearby hotels near the airport where you are stranded.”

And he cautioned against piling up large fees.

“Do some Google searches like ‘free activities near me’. I doubt Southwest will reimburse travel or other paid activities, so I wouldn’t book any expensive excursions you can’t afford.”

Southwest Airlines CEO issues video apology

Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan has apologized to stranded passengers as the embattled airline continues to grapple with what U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called a complete “breakdown” of the system. In total, Southwest has canceled more than 15,700 flights since Dec. 22, when winter weather began disrupting air travel.

Jordan apologized to passengers and staff in a video posted Tuesday night.

“We’re doing everything we can to get back to normal operations, and please hear me say I’m really sorry,” Jordan said.

With a large number of planes and crews “out of place” in dozens of cities, the airline decided to “significantly reduce flying to catch up,” he said.

While Jordan acknowledged problems with the company’s response, the statement indicated he doesn’t expect major changes to Southwest’s operating plans due to the mass cancellation.

“The tools we use to recover from outages serve us well 99% of the time, but obviously we need to double down on our existing plans to upgrade systems for these edge cases so we never Face what’s happening now, Jordan said.

What Happened to Southwest Airlines’ Reputation?

“It will take a long time for Southwest to regain public trust,” said The Vacationer’s Dengler.

“While extreme weather affected other airlines, Southwest Airlines experienced a real meltdown at the worst possible time. Many Americans had to decide whether to wait it out or spend thousands of dollars to get home, which may or may not be the case Full reimbursement at Southwest.”

He noted that “some families didn’t even choose to wait it out because one or more members had to return to work earlier in the week. Unfortunately, this will be difficult for many families and the lost time will It’s going to matter in a lot of situations.”

“A large percentage of Americans only fly once a year and they want a hassle-free experience. I’m sure a lot of people stop when they book their next flight and they think Southwest is the cheapest option.”

CNN’s Gregory Wallace, Andy Rose, Andi Babineau, Adrienne Broaddus, Dave Alsap, Nick Valencia, David Goldman, Leslie Perrot, Carlos Suarez and Ross Levitt contributed to this story.

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