The collapse of Southwest Airlines’ operations has brought the Dallas-based company under scrutiny — not just from stranded passengers and media coverage, but from U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
On Tuesday, he spoke directly to Southwest CEO Bob Jordan about the thousands of flights canceled this week, but did not immediately say when passengers would be able to rebook.
“Their system is really completely broken,” Buttigieg told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday.
“I’ve made it clear that our department will hold them accountable to their customers, both to help them get through this and ensure this doesn’t happen again.”
Passengers booked on struggling Southwest Airlines have been hoping for some much-needed relief from cancellations and delays. But so far, those hopes are being dashed.
Nearly all of the nearly 2,600 orders canceled on Wednesday belonged to Southwest.
All other US airlines combined accounted for more than 100 of these cancellations.
A look at the current numbers shows why Buttigieg is so concerned.
More than 3,100 flights within, in and out of the United States had been canceled as of 7:15 p.m. Tuesday, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware.
Of these canceled flights, more than 2,650 Those of the Southwest. That accounted for almost two-thirds of all Southwest flights on Tuesday and 85% of all U.S. flight cancellations.
That compares with rival Alaska Airlines canceling 10% of its flights and United Airlines just 2%.
The airport most affected by Tuesday’s flight cancellations was Denver International Airport, followed by Las Vegas’ Harri Reid International Airport, Chicago Midway International Airport, Baltimore/Washington International Airport, Nashville International Airport and Dallas Love Field Airport.
As of 7:15 p.m. ET on Tuesday, there was almost a 6 p.m. delay.
Today’s cancellations follow a full day of post-Christmas travel chaos, with 3,989 flights canceled on Monday, 2,909 of which were Southwest flights.
Southwest blamed a combination of factors for the travel disaster, including winter storm delays, aggressive flight schedules and outdated infrastructure.
“As far as I know, Southwest Airlines can’t even locate where their own crew members are, let alone their own passengers, let alone luggage,” Buttigieg said, adding that he also spoke with representatives of flight attendants and pilots. Airline union leaders spoke.
The secretary said he told CEO Jordan that he hoped Southwest would proactively offer refunds and reimbursement of expenses to affected passengers without them asking.
“I communicated to the CEO our expectation that they will do everything in their power to take care of passengers and address this issue,” he said.
Buttigieg told CNN that the Department of Transportation is prepared to fine Southwest if there is evidence the company failed to meet its legal obligations, but added that the department will take a closer look at the airline’s consistent customer service issues.
“While every other part of the airline system is moving in the direction of recovery and getting better every day, the airline has actually been moving in the opposite direction,” Buttigieg said.
“There’s a company here that needs to do a lot of cleaning up,” he said.
Jordan apologized to passengers and employees in a video statement released by the company Tuesday night.
“We’re doing everything we can to get back to normal operations, and please hear me say I’m really sorry,” Jordan said.
While Jordan acknowledged problems with the company’s response, the statement suggested he didn’t foresee major changes to Southwest’s procedures due to the mass cancellation.
“The tools we use to recover from outages serve us well 99% of the time, but obviously we need to double down on our existing plans to upgrade systems for these edge cases so we never Face what’s happening now, Jordan said.
“We are optimistic about getting back on track by next week.”
Flight delayed or canceled?Travel expert shares her tips
Southwest Airlines warned that this week’s cancellations and delays are expected to last for several days.
So what impression does this leave on a really struggling customer? What should they do?
“First and foremost, travelers who are still waiting on Southwest and need to get somewhere should try to book a flight on another airline as soon as possible … now, really,” said Kyle Porter, executive editor of travel advisories. website Thrifty Travelers, in an email to CNN Travel late Tuesday afternoon.
“Every airline in the country is overcrowded right now, so your odds of finding a seat — let alone at halfway prices — are getting smaller every hour,” Porter said.
“Travellers who are in the middle of it should make sure they keep all their receipts: other flights, car rentals, hotel stays, meals, whatever,” Porter said.
If you’re stuck and efforts to contact a customer service agent are going nowhere, the founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights recommends trying an international number.
“American Airlines’ main hotline will be jammed with other rebooked passengers. To reach an agent quickly, call any of the airline’s dozens of international offices,” Scott Keyes said.
“Agents can process your reservations just like US agents, but with virtually no wait to get through.”
Click here for Southwest Airlines previously issued international numbers.
Southwest Airlines has been hit especially hard by a litany of problems.
The storm hit two of its biggest centers — Chicago and Denver — at a time when winter sickness was weighing down the staff roster. Southwest has also been blamed for its aggressive schedule and underinvestment.
The winter storm sweeping across the country came at an inopportune time for travelers who had already started pushing Christmas week flight numbers back to pre-pandemic levels.
On Christmas Day, 3,178 flights were canceled and 6,870 were delayed, according to FlightAware. On Christmas Eve, a total of 3,487 flights were canceled, according to FlightAware.
Friday was the worst day of the streak, with 5,934 cancellations, compared with nearly 2,700 on Thursday.
Passengers were already lining up at the Southwest ticket counter at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Tuesday morning, waiting to rebook their flight or connect.
At Chicago’s Midway International Airport, a mountain of unclaimed luggage has piled up as passengers struggle to retrieve it. Similar scenes played out at other airports, including Harry Reed in Las Vegas and William P. Hobby in Houston.
Passenger Trisha Jones told CNN at the Atlanta airport that she and her partner had been traveling for five days and were trying to get home to Wichita, Kansas after disembarking in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
After her flight was cancelled, she stayed with relatives before being diverted to Atlanta for 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 and visit my family for Christmas,” Jones said. “It breaks my heart to see so many families sleeping on the floor.”
A spokesman for Southwest Airlines said the recent winter storms were to blame for the cascade of flight cancellations.
“As the storm continues to sweep across the country, it continues to affect many of our larger stations, so the cancellations add up to 100 to 150 to 1,000 one by one,” Jay McVay said in a news conference at Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport Said Monday night.
“As a result of these cancellations, we ended up with crews and aircraft out of place instead of continuing to operate our operations in the cities they needed to enter.”
McVeigh said the company’s top priority right now is safety. “We want to make sure that we are operating these flights safely and that our crews have sufficient legal time to operate them,” he said.
He said: “We’re going to do everything we can to meet the challenges we’re facing right now, including hotels, ride assistance, vans … rental cars, to make sure these people get home as quickly as possible.
All customers, even those who have left the airport or made other arrangements of their own, will be taken care of, he promised.
“If you’ve left, take care of yourself, do what you need to do for your family, keep your receipts,” McVeigh relayed. “We’ll make sure they’re taken care of, it’s not a problem.”
The captain, vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said in an interview with CNN on Tuesday. Mike Santoro said the problems facing Southwest were the worst disruption he had experienced at the airline in 16 years.
He described last week’s storm as the catalyst that helped trigger major technical problems.
“What went wrong was that our IT infrastructure for scheduling software was definitely outdated,” he said. “It can’t handle the number of pilots and cabin crew in our system, our complex network of airlines.
“We don’t have the normal hubs that other major airlines have. We fly a point-to-point network, which can allow our crew to be in the wrong place without an aircraft.”
He added: “It’s frustrating for the pilots, the flight attendants, and especially our passengers. We’re tired of apologizing for Southwest, the airline pilots, and our hearts go out to all the passengers who really did.”
• In hard-hit Western New York, buffalo international airport In its most recent tweet, it said it does not plan to resume passenger flights before 11 a.m. ET on Wednesday, delaying its expected reopening by another 24 hours than previously expected.
• Greyhound, the largest provider of intercity bus services, issued a service alert on Tuesday morning, saying many of its scheduled services in the north-east of the northeast continued to be disrupted until further notice due to winter weather. Affected cities include Buffalo, Cleveland and Syracuse.