Southwest Airlines struggled Wednesday to restore operations after a historic crisis and continued to ground most of its flights, leaving thousands of frustrated fliers stranded at airports across the country and drawing federal scrutiny into a “failure of the system”.
Southwest canceled 2,508 flights Wednesday, according to flight tracker Flight Aware, with 2,348 more already canceled by Thursday. This follows nearly a week of turmoil that began with a severe winter storm that battered the nation and challenged airlines over the holidays.
But as other airlines recovered, Southwest struggled to keep its operation afloat. The airline has canceled almost 13,000 flights – much more than 50% of its services – since December. 22, according to FlightAware.
Airline industry experts say the storm exposed the company vulnerable operations and outdated technology which hindered the carrier’s ability to recover from disruptions. Southwest officials say the problems are expected to persist for at least “a few days.”
Southwest CEO Bob Jordan apologized to customers in a video posted on Twitter Tuesday evening and said the carrier was “focused on safely putting all the pieces back together to end this ongoing struggle.”
But those parts, including aircraft and flight crews, were missing in dozens of locations, Jordan said, and despite the airline’s best efforts, the company has to “significantly reduce our flight” to a third of its program over the next two years. days to recover
“The tools we use to recover from an outage serve us well 99% of the time, but clearly we need to double down on our existing plans to update systems for these extreme circumstances so that we never again face the what’s happening now.” he said, adding that he remains optimistic the airline will be back up and running before next week.
Beyond the logistics of getting planes back in the air and baggage back to travelers, Southwest’s reputation for customer service is at stake.
Frustrated flyers shared experiences on social media of waiting in long lines or on hold for hours with customer service agents, often being disconnected before receiving any help, while trying to rebook or receive a refund from their travels Many are hoping to be compensated for the extra expenses they were forced to incur amid the chaos, such as to rent a car or booking with another airline.
In an email, a Southwest spokesman said the company launched a new online portal for customers to rebook their flights or request a refund.
“Many of the refunds will be handled on a case-by-case basis, and teams are already involved in those efforts,” said Dan Landson, Southwest’s public relations advisor.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg stepped up pressure on the company this week and he said on “Good Morning America” Wednesday. that the mass cancellations “indicate 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.
“This will require an extraordinary level of effort on the part of Southwest, and we will go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that they meet their obligations” to their customers, Buttigieg said.
Seconds the Department of Transportpassengers are entitled to a refund if their flight is canceled and they choose not to travel, and if there has been a “significant” change or delay to the flight, although the agency does not specifically define what is considered “significant” .
Airline agents have the discretion to offer additional compensation for hotel expenses or a seat on a different airline.
Southwest’s passenger rights policy states that “if circumstances within the airline’s control cause a customer to miss the last possible flight or connection of the day to their destination, Southwest customer service agents have authority to arrange accommodation for that customer and will find the customer a hotel or motel as close as possible to the airport at no additional cost.Customer Service can also arrange ground transportation to the overnight facility.” But that requires a phone call or conversation with a Southwest agent, which has become a challenge in itself during the recent crisis.
Southwest officials did not respond to questions about how many refunds have been issued in recent days.
The carrier’s crisis has hit many of its potential passengers in the pocket.
Southwest passenger Neavaly Touray estimated she’s racked up a $3,000 tab after her connecting flight from Nashville to LA, originating in Washington, DC, was canceled on Monday. That includes the rental car and gas for the 35-hour trip to LA, food and clothes for her family (three kids and two adults), and two nights at the Huntington Beach hotel she had already paid for.
“This was our money for our vacation,” Touray, 62, said. He said he heard, both on the news and on his doorstep, that the Southwest it is encouraging travelers to buy what they need and send receipts through an online system.
The airline said they would “be true to honor [their customers]and they would reimburse us for the things we find,” Touray said, adding that he can’t be sure it’s guaranteed. “I’m just waiting.”
After Kate Schelter’s flight from Oakland to Los Angeles was canceled, a gate agent at the Oakland airport gave her travel vouchers, even though she was told she was being reimbursed, she said .
Like Touray, Schelter decided to drive with her children, ages 9 and 12, and collected extra expenses along the way, including a hotel room and toiletries. She said she didn’t know she could be reimbursed for any of the costs and isn’t sure if she kept the receipts. When she arrived in LA, Schelter spent two hours in line at the airport asking Southwest representatives if she could transfer her flight vouchers to a refund only to be told she had to call the customer service.
She also paid the $120 she paid for an early check-in for her and her children, she said.
Schelter hasn’t tried calling Southwest yet, in part because he doesn’t want to spend hours on the phone just to get “potentially worse information” and will try to resolve the issue when he returns home from vacation, he said.
“I’m sure they’re so attached right now,” he said.
Times staff photographer Irfan Khan contributed to this report.