After days of chaos, canceled flights and stranded travelers, Southwest Airlines said it plans to resume normal operations “with minimal disruption” on Friday.
But it remains unclear how long it will take passengers who spent days in limbo to reach their destinations and receive compensation for the week-long crisis.
“With another holiday weekend full of important connections for our valued customers and employees, we are eager to return to a state of normalcy,” the airline said in a statement on Thursday.
Southwest continued to operate about a third of its normal operations Thursday, canceling 2,362 flights, about 60 percent of its services, according to flight tracker FlightAware. As of 9:30 a.m. Thursday, 52 flights originating at Los Angeles International Airport have been canceled, along with 54 inbound flights and dozens more listed as delayed.
But the Dallas-based carrier had fewer than 40 flights scheduled to cancel Friday, less than 1 percent of its total schedule for the day, according to FlightAware.
The airline has been in trouble since last week, when a punishing winter storm hit much of the country, disrupting travel plans and causing widespread flight disruptions.
While much of the industry recovered more quickly, Southwest remained in turmoil for days.
During the peak of cancellations, Southwest’s gates and terminals at LAX and other area airports were packed with passengers who showed up for flights they learned were blocked. Many commuters queued for hours seeking help. On Thursday, the chaos in the terminals appeared to have subsided, although hundreds of pieces of luggage remained piled up, airport officials said.
The airline is the nation’s largest low-cost carrier, with routes to several airports in California, including Los Angeles, Oakland, Burbank, Sacramento, San Diego and San Jose.
Southwest’s massive disruptions affected thousands of flyers, leaving them stranded at dozens of airports across the country without their luggage or digging into their pockets to find alternative travel options, leading to an increase in demand for rental cars. The chaos has also overwhelmed crews and staff, including pilots, flight attendants and gate agents.
“We know that even our deepest apologies, to our customers, our employees and everyone affected by this disruption, only go so far,” the company said in a statement Thursday. “We have a lot of work ahead of us, including investing in new solutions to handle large-scale outages.”
The airline created a new website for customers to submit refund and reimbursement requests for meals, hotels and alternative transportation, and to connect with baggage.
Southwest has gone to extremes to get its planes back into flight, and mea culpa videos posted on Twitter have become almost a basketball for the company as it seeks to ease customer frustrations and keep what’s left of his reputation. A day after the chief executive apologized to flyers, Ryan Green, the company’s chief commercial officer, compromised the company “I would do my best and work day and night to repair our relationship with you.”
“My personal apology is the first step in making things right after many plans have changed and experiences have not lived up to your expectations of us,” he said.
The airline has canceled at least 13,000 flights – well over 50% of its services – since December. 22, according to FlightAware.
A devastating winter storm that tore through the country just before Christmas sent holiday plans into chaos. And the Southwest fiasco was the “perfect storm” of known problems, industry experts and company union leaders said. They cited the company’s outdated technology and vulnerable operations that are particularly susceptible to any disruption, let alone multiple coast-to-coast weather events.
Experts explained that the US airline giant operates on a unique flight pattern: planes fly from destination to destination rather than flying in and out of certain hubs, which leaves little room for error. It also has no partnerships with other airlines to help with bookings and operates with few open seats or reservation teams. Delays can run out quickly.
Southwest’s response and handling of the crisis have come under increasing pressure from current and former lawmakers and consumer advocates, who are calling on the company not only to help stranded travelers, but to ensure they are reimbursed appropriately
In an email, an airline spokesman said Thursday that refunds are being reviewed on a case-by-case basis and that the company is working as quickly as possible to compensate customers. They declined to provide an estimate of how many refunds have been processed so far.
Elaine Chao, President Trump’s former transportation secretary, he said Thursday on “CNN This Morning.” that Southwest was once a “paragon” in the airline industry in part because of its labor and customer relations, all of that “has been called into question,” he said.
“They know they have a lot of work to do to regain and regain the loyalty and trust they used to have with the traveling public,” Chao said. “They’re going to be under scrutiny from regulators, from the administration. They’ve got a lot on their plate.”
Southwest leaders have signaled a series of updates to the company’s websites for affected travelers, including allowing flyers to travel through January. 2 to change your itineraries online, forms to help travelers locate lost luggage and refund requests for cancellations or expenses incurred due to disruptions
Current Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said “Good Morning America” on Wednesday that the mass cancellation crisis “indicates a system failure” and that the agency will “closely monitor” to ensure that Southwest lives up to its customer service commitments. Southwest’s compensation for passengers should cover flights along with meals, lodging and ground transportation because “that’s the airline’s responsibility,” he said.