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Southwest cancellations continue as airline deals with ‘meltdown’ fallout

(CNN) — As Southwest Airlines struggled to get planes back in the air and passengers home on the way into Thursday, US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has taken a sharp line with the company.

He pulls no punches, referring to the situation as a complete “meltdown” of the system.

“You have a company here that has a lot to clean up,” he has said.

And while the company has previously warned that it could take days to clean up the backlog of stranded people and lost luggage, one of the unions gave hope that things could improve early on Friday.

But Thursday promises to be more of the same, with 2,349 Southwest flights already canceled, according to flight tracking website FlightAware. Once again, cancellations are almost all on Southwest; there are only 2,410 total US flights canceled for Thursday as of 1:40 a.m. ET.

On top of all this, there is increasing scrutiny of what led to this meltdown, with operations at Denver International Airport under a microscope.

‘Operational Emergency’ in Denver

Southwest’s decision to adopt “operational emergency” staffing procedures last week at the Denver airport as a massive winter storm hit hinted at a tangle of factors contributing to the airline’s nationwide operational crisis.

The airport in Denver led the US in cancellations on Wednesday and has been one of the country’s biggest trouble spots for several days.

Southwest’s emergency staffing procedures in Denver included requiring a doctor’s note to confirm illness after an employee called in sick, a Southwest spokesperson told CNN on Wednesday.

The spokesperson could not say whether the staffing policy remains in place or when the special rules ended.

The Washington Post cited a Southwest memo related to the operational emergency, dated December 21, in which the airline’s vice president of ground operations declared that the condition was imposed due to an “unusually high number of absences” of Denver-based ramp employees, including sick. calls and personal days for afternoon and evening shifts.

The operational emergency — which is only being experienced in Denver, according to the company — is separate from the problem the company says is to blame for the cascade of cancellations across the country.

Denver International Airport has announced plans to conduct after-action reviews with the airport’s three major airlines – Frontier, Southwest and United – to learn from the disruptions while the situation is still fresh.

A ray of hope?

A traveler looks at his luggage in the baggage area inside the Southwest Airlines terminal at St. Louis Lambert International Airport on Wednesday.

A traveler looks at his luggage in the baggage area inside the Southwest Airlines terminal at St. Louis Lambert International Airport on Wednesday.

Jeff Roberson/AP

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 heard the airline is planning a “mostly full route on Friday.”

“The weather, you know, was a major event that triggered it, although that’s no excuse for the lack of IT infrastructure planning that really caused the problem,” Santoro said.

The union official said Southwest’s scheduling infrastructure usually works well, but added this isn’t the first time they’ve seen a meltdown cause delays. “When you have these big weather events, it always seems to crash,” Santoro said.

As of 1:40 a.m. ET Thursday, Southwest had canceled just 39 flights for Friday, according to FlightAware.

Tough stats for Southwest this week

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

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

Paul Hennessy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Of the 2,912 cancellations on Wednesday for flights departing within, to or out of the United States, about 2,510 of them were operated by Southwest, according to FlightAware. That’s 86% of all canceled flights in the US.

In all, Southwest has canceled about 15,700 flights since winter weather began disrupting flights on Dec. 22. (That number includes the flights already canceled for Thursday.)

Southwest has struggled to unwind 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 can work.

Southwest spokesman Chris Perry told CNN that the airline is not experiencing a problem with employees not showing up for work.

“We have not had staffing issues at any station in our entire operation and commend our people for the valiant work they do,” Perry said.

This is now a problem in the south west

Other US airlines flying in the same weather conditions have since recovered from the storm disruptions.

Indeed, American Airlines and United Airlines have capped fares 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 their agents to rebook passengers on another airline, leaving the onus on travelers to explore other options.

Southwest plans to fly a reduced schedule over the next few days to redeploy crew and aircraft, the airline’s CEO Bob Jordan said in a video released by the airline late Tuesday.

“We are optimistic to be back on track before next week,” he said before the pilots’ union’s announcement.

Buttigieg says he spoke directly with Jordan on Tuesday about the thousands of flights that have been canceled this week.

“Their system has really come together,” Buttigieg told Blitzer. “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.”

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.

U.S. airlines are also required to provide cash refunds to passengers whose flights were canceled and chose not to travel, the DOT 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.

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.

What customers should do

A travel expert warns to proceed with caution when it comes to refunds.

“Southwest says ‘We will honor reasonable requests for reimbursement for meals, hotels and alternative transportation,'” points out Phil Dengler, co-founder of travel advice site The Vacationer.

“Although Southwest is unclear on how much they will refund, I would avoid expensive hotels or restaurants. Use Google Hotels to find nearby hotels near the airport where you are stranded.”

And he also warns against racking up a big tab.

“Do a few Google searches like ‘free things to do near me.’ I doubt Southwest will refund tours or other paid activities, so I wouldn’t book any expensive excursions you can’t afford.”

Southwest CEO issues video apology

Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan issued an apology to stranded travelers as the beleaguered airline continues to grapple with what US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has described as a complete “meltdown” of the system. In all, Southwest has canceled more than 15,700 flights since winter weather began disrupting flights on Dec. 22.

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

“We are doing everything we can to return to a normal operation, and please know that I am truly sorry,” Jordan said.

He said that with a large number of aircraft and flight crews “out of position” in dozens of cities, the airline decided to “significantly reduce our aircraft to catch up.”

While Jordan acknowledged problems with the company’s response, the statement suggested he did not anticipate massive changes to Southwest’s operating plans 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.

What is the success of Southwest’s reputation?

“It’s going to take a long time for Southwest Airlines to earn back public trust,” said Dengler of The Vacationer.

“While the extreme weather affected other airlines, Southwest experienced a true meltdown at the worst possible time. Many Americans must decide whether or not to wait and spend potentially thousands of dollars to get home that may or may not be fully reimbursed. by Southwest.”

He noted that “some households didn’t even have the option to wait because one or more members had to go back to work early this week. Unfortunately, it’s going to be a hardship for many families, and the time lost is going to be significant for many instances.”

“A large portion of Americans only fly once a year, and they want a hassle-free experience. I think many will take a break when they book their next flight, and they will look at 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.

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