(CNN) — As Southwest Airlines scrambled to get its planes back in the air and its passengers back home heading into Thursday, US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has taken a sharp line with the company.
He’s pulling no punches, referring to the situation as a complete “meltdown” of the system.
“You’ve got a company here that’s got a lot of cleaning up to do,” he has said.
And while the company has previously warned that it could take days to clear the backlog of stranded people and lost luggage, one of its unions offered a ray of hope that things might be better by early as Friday.
On top of all that, there’s increasing scrutiny of what led up to this meltdown, with operations at Denver International Airport under a microscope.
‘Operational emergency’ in Denver
Southwest’s decision to enact “operational emergency” staffing procedures last week at the airport in Denver as a massive winter storm bore down hints at a tangle of factors contributing to the airline’s nation-wide operational crisis.
The Denver airport led the United States in cancellations on Wednesday and has been one of the nation’s biggest problem spots for several days.
The Southwest emergency staffing procedures in Denver included requiring a note from a doctor to verify illness after an employee calls out sick, a Southwest spokesperson told CNN Wednesday.
The spokesperson could not say whether the staffing policy remains in place or when the special rules ended.
The operational emergency — experienced only at Denver, according to the company — is distinct from the issue the company says is to blame for the cascade of cancellations nation-wide.
Denver International Airport has announced plans to conduct after-action reviews with the airport’s three major carriers — Frontier, Southwest and United — to learn from the disruptions while the situation is still fresh.
A ray of hope?
A traveler looks at luggage in the baggage claim area inside the Southwest Airlines terminal at St. Louis Lambert International Airport on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, an official for the union representing Southwest pilots said they expect to have their flight schedules 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 have been hearing that the airline is planning for a “mostly full schedule come Friday.”
“The weather, you know, was a big event that triggered it, although that’s no excuse for the lack of scheduling IT infrastructure which really caused the problem,” Santoro said.
The union official said Southwest’s scheduling infrastructure usually works well, but added this is not the first time they have seen a meltdown causing delays. “When you have these big weather events, it always seems to crash,” said Santoro.
As of 1:40 a.m. ET Thursday, Southwest had canceled only 39 flights for Friday, according to FlightAware.
Tough stats for Southwest this week
Travelers tag their bags at Orlando International Airport on December 28, 2022.
Paul Hennessy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Of the 2,912 Wednesday cancellations for flights departing within, to or out of the United States, some 2,510 of them were operated by Southwest, according to FlightAware. That is 86% of all canceled flights in the United States.
In all, Southwest has canceled about 15,700 flights since winter weather began disrupting air travel on December 22. (That figure includes the flights already canceled for Thursday.)
Southwest has struggled to unwind itself from the tangled string of cancellations that began with the winter storm. Union leaders say software and manual processes are used to reassign flight crews, who for safety reasons are limited in the number of hours they may work.
Southwest spokesperson Chris Perry told CNN the airline is not experiencing an issue with employees not showing up for work.
“We have not had staffing issues at any station across our operation and commend our people for the valiant work they are doing,” Perry said.
This is now a Southwest problem
Other US airlines flying in the same weather conditions have since recovered from the storm disruptions.
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 plans to fly a reduced schedule over the next few days to reposition crew and planes, airline CEO Bob Jordan said in a video released by the airline late Tuesday.
“We’re optimistic to be back on track before next week,” he said before the pilots’ union announcement.
Buttigieg says he spoke directly to Jordan on Tuesday about the thousands of flights that have been canceled this week.
“Their system really has completely melted down,” Buttigieg told 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.
What customers should do
One travel expert cautions to proceed carefully regarding refunds.
“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.”
Southwest CEO issues video apology
Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan released an apology to stranded travelers as the beleaguered airline continues to grapple with what US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has referred to as a complete “meltdown” of the system. In all, Southwest has canceled more than 15,700 flights since winter weather began disrupting air travel on December 22.
“We’re doing everything we can to return to a normal operation, and please also hear that I am truly sorry,” Jordan said.
He said with large numbers of airplanes and flight crews “out of position” in dozens of cities, the airline decided to “significantly reduce our flying to catch up.”
While Jordan acknowledged problems with the company response, the statement suggested that he did not foresee massive changes to Southwest’s operating plans in response to the mass cancellations.
“The tools we use to recover from disruption serve us well 99% of the time, but clearly we need to double-down on our already-existing plans to upgrade systems for these extreme circumstances so that we never again face what’s happening right now,” said Jordan.
What’s the hit to Southwest’s reputation?
“It is going to take a long time for Southwest Airlines to earn back public trust,” Dengler of The Vacationer said.
“While the extreme weather affected other airlines, Southwest experienced a true meltdown at the worst possible time. Many Americans have to decide on whether or not to wait it out or spend potentially thousands of dollars to get home that may or may not be fully reimbursed by Southwest.”
He noted that “some households did not even have the option to wait it out because one or multiple members had to return to work early this week. Unfortunately, that is going to be a hardship for many families, and the time lost is going to be significant in many cases.”
“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.”
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.