Southwest Airlines says it’s set up to resume normal schedules on Friday after a tumultuous eight days that left hundreds of thousands of passengers delayed or stranded and prompted its executives to make apologies to the riding public and government officials.
In a statement released Thursday – following another bruising day in which a further 2,362 flights were canceled – Southwest said it hoped for minimal disruptions over the New Year’s weekend.
“We are encouraged by the progress we’ve made to realign crew, their schedules, and our fleet,” it said.
Thursday’s statement came with more contrition from the airline.
“We know even our deepest apologies – to our customers, to our employees, and to all affected through this disruption – only go so far,” the statement read.
“We’ve set up a page at Southwest.com/traveldisruption for customers to submit refund and reimbursement requests for meals, hotel, and alternate transportation; as well as to connect customers to their baggage.”
However, that’s still not mollifying questions about how the airline’s systems could allow things to go so wrong and demands they not happen again. And the Department of Transportation is still taking a firm line with Southwest.
DOT formally warned Southwest Airlines on Thursday that it will face consequences if it fails to make right by stranded and inconvenienced passengers.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg wrote in a letter to Southwest CEO Bob Jordan that officials will take action against the airline if it does not follow through on promises to reimburse passengers for alternative transportation costs, as well as provide meals, hotels, refunds and baggage reunification.
The penalties include the ability to levy fines.
“It would be an unfair and deceptive practice not to fulfill this commitment to passengers,” Buttigieg wrote, specifically referring to alternative travel reimbursements. “The Department will use the fullest extent of its investigative and enforcement powers to hold Southwest accountable if it fails to adhere to the promises made to reimburse passengers for costs incurred for alternate transportation.”
Those fines could be substantial.
“The airline said to me that they were going to go above and beyond what’s required of them,” Buttigieg said Thursday in an interview with NBC News. “I’m looking to make sure they actually do that, and if they don’t, we are in a position to levy tens of thousands of dollars per violation per passenger in fines.”
FlightAware, the flight tracking service, showed that only 39 Southwest Friday flights have been canceled as of 11:40 p.m. ET Thursday. That appears to back up Southwest’s claim that normal services would be more or less resumed on Friday.
The airline has also begun notifying its customers that it expects to fly a “full schedule” on Friday.
An email to a passenger scheduled to fly Southwest on Friday read: “While we have recently experienced operational challenges, we expect to resume a full schedule of flights with minimal disruptions on your day of travel.”
Before the latest announcement, the airline’s chief commercial officer, Ryan Green, had offered his regrets over the collapse of services, promising to rebuild customer relations that have sunk to rock bottom during the busy holiday travel period.
“My personal apology is the first step of making things right after many plans changed and experiences fell short of your expectations of us,” Green said in a video issued Thursday.
“We’re continuing to work to make this up to you, and you’ll continue to hear about that soon. But for now, we’re focused on restoring the reliability and level of customer experience we expect of ourselves, and you expect of us.”
His remarks, which follow earlier apologies from airline CEO Bob Jordan, came as Buttigieg made his own scathing assessment Southwest’s troubles, calling the situation a complete “meltdown.”
“You’ve got a company here that’s got a lot of cleaning up to do,” he said.
While Friday could bring much-needed relief to the situation, Thursday was still a challenging day.
As of 11:40 p.m. ET Thursday, there were just over 2,515 US flights canceled for the day, and roughly 2,360 belonged to Southwest. That means 94% of all canceled US flights belonged to Southwest on Thursday.
The most affected airports were some of the same ones slammed the hardest earlier this week: Denver International, Chicago Midway, Harry Reid International in Las Vegas, Dallas Love Field, Nashville International and Baltimore/Washington International.
Some passengers were taking all of this in stride and showed some sympathy for Southwest.
Several people at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport spoke to CNN’s Nick Valencia on Thursday about their travel experiences with Southwest this holiday season.
“I mean, it’s just par for the course. This is flight travel, everyone’s trying to get everywhere at the same time. Unfortunately, Southwest took the brunt of this year’s travel unfortunate situation,” Roderic Hister told CNN.
When asked what he thought about the lack of lines at the Southwest counters at the airport, Hister said: “Maybe speaks to the improvements that they’re trying to make, because there’s not long lines, people aren’t here complaining. So, maybe you know, the efforts to redeem themselves are working.”
Winston Williams, standing near Hister, said he intends to still use the airline in the future.
“I like Southwest. I mean, the bags are free,” Williams said.
Ask Southwest Airline employees about their company’s technology and one word keeps coming up: “Antiquated.”
While Southwest grew from a scrappy, Texas-based discount airline operating three planes into one of the nation’s largest – union officials representing Southwest workers say the company did not keep pace with technology changes. And they say they’ve been raising concerns for years.
“We’ve been harping on them since 2015-ish every year,” Mike Santoro, a captain and vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, told CNN.
As extreme winter conditions swept much of the country last week – including important airports in Southwest’s network – Southwest’s plan for “irregular operations” passed the breaking point, according to multiple people familiar with the situation.
They and the airline itself described an internal process that requires multiple departments to manually redesign the airline’s schedule – a system that works “the vast majority of the time,” the airline said in a statement.
When something goes wrong, the Southwest software – including the crew scheduling system tool – leaves much of the work of rebuilding that delicate network to be done manually.
“It can’t see the best way to fix anything when flights are canceled,” said Brian Brown, president of Transport Workers Union Local 550, representing Southwest dispatchers and meteorologists. “It requires a lot more human intervention and human eyesight or brainpower and can only handle so much.”
The result is that airline officials “don’t necessarily know where our crews are, where our planes are,” Brown said. Crew schedulers in another department are manually checking which pilots and flight attendants meet strict federal rules on work hours – rules meant to keep inflight safety professionals from excessive fatigue.
Elaine Chao, who served as secretary of transportation during the Trump administration, described the Southwest Airlines breakdown as “a failure of unbelievable proportions.”
She told CNN it was “a perfect storm of all the things that have been going on with the company. It’s going to take them a very long time” to rebuild trust with consumers, she added.
Phil Dengler, co-founder of the travel advice website The Vacationer, concurs.
“It is going to take a long time for Southwest Airlines to earn back public trust. While the extreme weather affected other airlines, Southwest experienced a true meltdown at the worst possible time,” he said Thursday in an email to CNN Travel.
“A large portion of Americans only fly once per year, and they want a problem-free experience. I believe many people are going to pause when booking their next flight and they see Southwest Airlines as the cheapest option” Dengler said.
“While the low prices are enticing, this meltdown is going to cause many travelers to explore other low-cost options.”
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot weighed in Thursday, also wanting to be sure Southwest keeps its reimbursement promises.
“I’m pleased to share that they [senior leadership] have assured me Southwest will be back at near-normal flight operations by tomorrow, Friday, at both Midway and O’Hare airports,” she said in a statement.
“I urged Southwest leadership to better communicate what they are offering with their customers. That includes reasonable reimbursement for hotels, meals, car rentals, and flights on competitor airlines for passengers who were booked on any Southwest flight canceled since Christmas Eve,” Lightfoot said.
‘I was in shock’: Bride describes learning she would miss her own wedding
Among those affected was bride-to-be Katie Demeko from St. Louis, who had to postpone her wedding after her Southwest flight to Belize was canceled at the last minute.
“We went to the the airport, our flight was on time, and when we were getting ready to board, the captain came out, gave a speech and basically told us the flight was canceled,” she told CNN.
“At that point I had a lot of my family with me, I was in shock, We tried to rebook, and there was nothing.”
She said Southwest offered to rebook her on a January 2 flight, which would’ve been three days too late. While the wedding is now postponed, she and her family and friends have lost money on food and accommodation.
“We’re just devastated,” she said.
In all, Southwest has canceled roughly 15,750 flights since winter weather began disrupting air travel on December 22. (That figure includes the small number flights already canceled for Friday.)
Other US airlines flying in the same weather conditions recovered days earlier from the storm disruptions that slammed much of the Lower 48 in the days leading up to Christmas.
In response to the situation, American Airlines and United Airlines capped prices on some routes served by Southwest Airlines to make their flights more accessible to stranded passengers.
Southwest does not have interline agreements with other carriers that would allow its agents to rebook passengers on a different airline, leaving travelers in charge of exploring other options.
Southwest CEO responds to backlash over cancellations
Buttigieg says he spoke directly to Jordan earlier this week about the thousands of flights that have been canceled this week.
“Their system really has completely melted down,” Buttigieg told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “I 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.”
Those responsibilities include providing meal vouchers and hotel accommodations for passengers whose flights were disrupted “as a result of Southwest’s decisions and actions,” a Department of Transportation (DOT) spokesperson said.
US airlines are also required to provide cash refunds to passengers whose flights were canceled and opted not to travel, the DOT said.
Buttigieg told CNN the Department of Transportation is prepared to pursue fines against Southwest if there is evidence that the company has failed to meet its legal obligations, but he added that the department will be taking a closer look at consistent customer service problems at the airline.
The secretary said he told CEO Jordan that he expects Southwest to proactively offer refunds and expense reimbursement to affected passengers without them having to ask.
Dengler cautions to proceed carefully regarding refunds.
“Southwest says, ‘We will honor reasonable requests for reimbursement for meals, hotel, and alternate transportation,’ ” he said.
“While Southwest is being vague on how much they will reimburse, I would avoid any expensive hotels or restaurants. Use Google Hotels to find nearby hotels near the airport where you are stranded.”
And he also cautions about piling up a big tab.
“Do a few Google searches such as ‘free things to do near me.’ I doubt Southwest is going to reimburse tours or other paid activities, so I would not book any expensive excursions that you cannot afford.”