Southwest Airline’s operational meltdown has put the Dallas-headquartered company under serious scrutiny – not only from stranded passengers and media reports but from US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg as well.
He spoke directly to 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 really has completely melted down,” Buttigieg told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday.
“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.”
Passengers booked with beleaguered Southwest Airlines have been hoping for some much-needed relief on cancellations and delays. But those hopes – so far – are being dashed.
Out of the more than 2,680 cancellations already made for Wednesday, nearly all of them belong to Southwest.
All other US airlines together account for just roughly 155 of those cancellations.
Latest flight cancellation and delay figures
A look at current numbers show why Buttigieg is so concerned.
Almost 3,200 flights within, into or out of the United States have been canceled for Tuesday as of 11:45 p.m. ET, according to flight tracking website FlightAware.
Of those canceled flights, some 2,691 were those of Southwest. That was almost two-thirds of all Southwest flights for Tuesday and a stunning 84% of all canceled flights in the United States.
By contrast, competitors Alaska Airlines had 10% of its flights canceled and United Airlines had only 3%.
Airports most affected by the Tuesday cancellations have been Denver International, followed by Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas, Chicago Midway International, Baltimore/Washington International, Nashville International and Dallas Love Field.
There were more than 7,000 delays as of 11:45 p.m. ET Tuesday.
Today’s cancellations followed a full day of post-Christmas travel chaos, with 3,989 flights canceled on Monday – 2,909 of those being Southwest flights.
Buttigieg takes Southwest to task
Southwest has blamed the travel disaster on a combination of factors, including winter storm delays, aggressive flight scheduling and outdated infrastructure.
“From what I can tell, Southwest is unable to locate even where their own crews are, let alone their own passengers, let alone baggage,” said Buttigieg, 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 expense reimbursement to affected passengers without them having to ask.
“I conveyed to the CEO our expectation that they going to go above and beyond to take care of passengers and to address this,” he 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.
“While all of the other parts of the aviation system have been moving toward recovery and getting better each day, it’s actually been moving the opposite direction with this airline,” said Buttigieg.
“You’ve got a company here that’s got a lot of cleaning up to do,” he said.
A video apology
Jordan apologized to passengers and employees in a video statement released by the company on Tuesday evening.
“We’re doing everything we can to return to a normal operation, and please also hear that I am truly sorry,” Jordan said.
While Jordan acknowledged problems with the company response, the statement suggested that he did not foresee massive changes to Southwest’s procedures 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.
“We’re optimistic to be back on track before next week.”
So what can Southwest passengers do?
Southwest has warned that this week’s cancellations and delays are expected to continue for several more days.
So where does that leave customers who are in a real jam? What should they do?
“First things first, travelers who are still stuck waiting on Southwest and need to get somewhere should try to book a flight with another airline as soon as possible … right now, really,” said Kyle Potter, executive editor at the travel advice website Thrifty Traveler, in an email to CNN Travel late Tuesday afternoon.
“Every airline in the country is jam-packed right now, so your odds of even finding a seat – let alone at an even halfway decent price – get smaller by the hour,” Potter said.
“Travelers in the thick of this should be sure to save all their receipts: other flights, a rental car, nights at the hotel, meals, anything,” Potter said.
If you’ve been left in the lurch and your efforts to reach a customer service agent are going nowhere, the founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights suggests trying an international number.
“The main hotline for US airlines will be clogged with other passengers getting rebooked. To get through to an agent quickly, call any 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 virtually no wait to get through.”
Click here to get international numbers that Southwest has previously posted.
Southwest was hit particularly hard because of a cascade of issues.
The storm slammed two of its biggest hubs – Chicago and Denver – at a time when winter ailments were stretching staff rosters. Southwest’s aggressive schedule and underinvestment have also been blamed.
The winter storm that swept across the country was ill-timed for travelers who had started pushing Christmas week flying numbers back toward pre-pandemic levels.
On Christmas Day, 3,178 flights were canceled and 6,870 were delayed, according to FlightAware. On Christmas Eve, there were a total of 3,487 flights canceled, according to FlightAware.
Friday was the worst day of this streak with 5,934 cancellations, while Thursday saw almost 2,700 cancellations.
Long lines and bag buildups at airports
At the Southwest ticket counter at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Tuesday morning, long lines were already building up as travelers waited to try to rebook flights or make connections.
And at Chicago’s Midway International, huge buildups of unclaimed bags piled up as passengers struggled to reclaim their luggage. There were similar scenes at other airports including Harry Reid in Las Vegas and William P. Hobby Airport in Houston.
Passenger Trisha Jones told CNN at the airport in Atlanta that she and her partner had been traveling for five days, trying to get home to Wichita, Kansas, after disembarking from a cruise at Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
After her flight out was canceled, she stayed with relatives then rerouted to Atlanta to pick up a connecting flight.
“We were fortunate, because we were in Fort Lauderdale – my family lives in the Tampa bay area so we were able to rent a car to go see my family for Christmas,” Jones said. “We’ve seen a lot of families who are sleeping on the floor, and it just breaks my heart.”
Southwest: ‘Keep your receipts’
A spokesperson for Southwest Airlines said the recent winter storm is to blame for the cascade of cancellations.
“As the storm continued to sweep across the country it continued to impact many of our larger stations and so the cancellations just compiled one after another to 100 to 150 to 1,000,” Jay McVay said in a news conference at Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport on Monday night.
“With those cancellations and as a result, we end up with flight crews and airplanes that are out of place and not in the cities that they need to be in to continue to run our operations.”
McVay said that the company’s first priority right now is safety. “We want to make sure that we operate these flights safely and that we have the flight crews that have legal and sufficient time to operate these flights,” he stated.
“We will do everything that we need to do to right the challenges that we’ve had right now,” he said, including “hotels, ride assistance, vans … rental cars to try and make sure these folks get home as quickly as possible.”
He promised that all customers, even those who had already left the airport or made alternate 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, keep your receipts,” McVay relayed. “We will make sure they are taken care of, that is not a question.”
What’s wrong from a pilot’s point of view
Speaking to CNN on Tuesday, the vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, Capt. Mike Santoro, said the problems facing Southwest were the worst disruptions he’d experienced in 16 years at the airline.
He described last week’s storm as a catalyst that helped trigger major technical issues.
“What went wrong is that our IT infrastructure for scheduling software is vastly outdated,” he said. “It can’t 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 the other major airlines do. We fly a point-to-point network, which can put our crews in the wrong places, without airplanes.”
He added: “It is frustrating for the pilots, the flight attendants and especially our passengers. We are tired of apologizing for Southwest, the pilots in the airline, our hearts go out to all of the passengers, they really do.”
In other developments
• In hard-hit western New York, Buffalo International Airport said in its most recent tweet that it does not plan to resume passenger flights before 11 a.m. ET Wednesday, pushing back the expected reopening by another 24 hours later than previously anticipated.
• Greyhound, the largest provider of intercity bus service, issued a service alert on Tuesday morning stating many of its scheduled services in the upper northeast continued to be disrupted until further notice due to winter weather. Affected cities include Buffalo, Cleveland and Syracuse.
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.