(CNN) — Relief is still days away for passengers booked with Southwest Airlines this week, as the beleaguered carrier continues to grapple with what US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has described as a complete system meltdown.
Airports most affected by Wednesday̵[ads1]7;s cancellations are Denver International, followed by Chicago Midway International, Baltimore/Washington International, Dallas Love Field, Nashville International, Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas and Phoenix Sky Harbor International.
Buttigieg says he spoke directly with Southwest CEO Bob Jordan on Tuesday about the thousands of flights that have been canceled this week with no immediate indication of when passengers can rebook.
“Their system has really melted down,” Buttigieg told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday.
“I made it clear that our department will hold them accountable for their responsibility to customers, both to get them through this situation and to ensure that this cannot happen again.”
Tuesday at a glance
CNN’s Carlos Suarez reports from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport, where travelers are braving long lines and flight cancellations after a massive winter storm swept through the United States.
More than 3,200 flights within, into or out of the United States were canceled Tuesday, according to FlightAware.
Of those canceled flights, about 2,693 were from Southwest – an impressive 84% of all canceled flights in the US.
Long lines of travelers trying to rebook or make connections were seen at Southwest ticket counters at several US airports on Tuesday, while huge piles of unclaimed bags continued to grow as passengers struggled to reclaim their bags at airports including Chicago’s Midway International, Harry Reid in Lock. Vegas and William P. Hobby Airport in Houston.
Passenger Trisha Jones told CNN at the Atlanta airport that she and her partner had been traveling for five days trying to get home to Wichita, Kansas, after disembarking from a cruise in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
After her flight out was cancelled, she stayed with relatives, then was diverted to Atlanta to catch a connecting flight.
“We were lucky, because we were in Fort Lauderdale — my family lives in the Tampa Bay area, so we were able to rent a car to visit my family for Christmas,” Jones said. “We have seen many families sleeping on the floor and it breaks my heart.”
Buttigieg: “A lot to clean up”
Canceled Southwest Airlines flights are displayed on an information board at California’s Oakland International Airport on Tuesday.
Southwest has blamed the travel disaster on several factors, including winter storm delays, aggressive flight scheduling and outdated infrastructure.
“From what I can tell, Southwest is not able to even find where their own crews are, let alone their own passengers, let alone baggage,” Buttigieg said, adding that he also spoke with leaders of the airline’s unions representing flight attendants and pilots.
The secretary said he told CEO Jordan that he expects Southwest to proactively offer refunds and reimbursements to affected passengers without them having to ask.
“I conveyed to the CEO our expectation that they are going to go above and beyond to take care of passengers and address this,” he said.
Buttigieg told CNN that the Transportation Department is prepared to pursue fines against Southwest if there is evidence that the company has not met its legal obligations, but he added that the department will look into consistent customer service problems at the airline.
“While all the other parts of the aviation system have been moving toward recovery and getting better every day, it’s actually been moving in the opposite direction with this airline,” Buttigieg said.
“You have a company here that has a lot to clean up,” he said.
Southwest CEO issues video apology
“We are doing everything we can to return to a normal operation, and please know that I am truly sorry,” Jordan said.
While Jordan acknowledged problems with the company’s response, the statement suggested he did not foresee massive changes to Southwest’s procedures in response to the mass cancellations.
“The tools we use to recover from outages serve us well 99% of the time, but it’s clear that we need to double down on our pre-existing plans to upgrade systems for these extreme circumstances so that we never again face what happens right now,” Jordan said.
“We are optimistic to be back on track before next week.”
Is there anything passengers can do?
Scott’s Cheap Flights spokesperson Katy Nastro shares her tips on what to do if your flight is delayed or canceled.
Southwest has warned that this week’s cancellations and delays are expected to continue for several days.
So what should customers do?
“Every airline in the country is packed right now, so your chances of finding a seat — let alone at a halfway decent price — are diminishing by the hour,” Potter said.
“Travelers who are in the middle of this should be sure to save all their receipts: other flights, a rental car, hotel stays, meals, anything,” Potter said.
“The main phone line for US airlines will be clogged with other passengers being rebooked. To get through to an agent quickly, call one of the airline’s dozens of international offices,” Scott Keyes said.
“Agents can handle your reservation just like US-based ones can, but there’s almost no wait time to get through.”
Sørvest: “Keep your receipts”
After their flight was canceled, 13 strangers decided to rent a van and drive all the way from Orlando to Knoxville, Tennessee.
Southwest spokesman Jay McVay said at a press conference at Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport Monday night that the airline will do everything it can to correct the challenges passengers have experienced, including “hotels, ride assistance, vans … rental cars to try to make these people come home as soon as possible.”
He promised that all customers, including those who had already left the airport or made alternative arrangements on their own, would also be taken care of.
“If you’ve already left, take care of yourself, do what you need to do for your family, take care of your receipts,” McVay continued. – We must ensure that they are taken care of, that is not a question.
What is wrong from a pilot’s point of view
Passengers look for their luggage at Hollywood Burbank Airport in California on Tuesday.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
He described last week’s storm as a catalyst that helped trigger major technical problems.
“What went wrong is that our planning software IT infrastructure is massively out of date,” he said. “It cannot handle the number of pilots, flight attendants that we have in the system, with our complex route network.
“We don’t have the normal hub that the other major airlines have. We fly a point-to-point network, which can put our crews in the wrong places, without planes.”
He added: “It’s frustrating for the pilots, flight attendants and especially our passengers. We’re tired of apologizing for Southwest, the pilots of the airline, our hearts go out to all the passengers, they really do.”
CNN’s Andy Rose, Andi Babineau, Adrienne Broaddus, Dave Alsap, Nick Valencia, David Goldman, Leslie Perrot, Carlos Suarez and Ross Levitt contributed to this story.