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South West cancellations continue as airline faces fallout from ‘merger’

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(CNN) — As Southwest Airlines rushed to get its planes back in the air and passengers fly home on Thursday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg took a sharp line with the company.

He fires no shots, referring to the situation as a complete “collapse” of the system.

“You have a business here that has a lot of cleaning to do,” he said.

And while the company has previously warned that it could take days to clear the backlog of stranded people and lost luggage, one of its unions offered a glimmer of hope that things could improve soon. Friday.

But Thursday promises to be more of the same, with 2,356 South West flights already cancelled, according to flight tracking website FlightAware. Again, the cancellations are almost all on Southwest; there are only 2,435 total US flights canceled as of 5 a.m. ET Thursday.

On top of all that, there’s growing 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 hinted at a tangle of factors contributing to the national operational crisis of the airline company.

Denver Airport led the United States in cancellations on Wednesday and has been one of the nation’s biggest problems for several days.

Southwestern emergency staffing procedures in Denver included requiring a doctor’s note to verify illness after an employee called in sick, a southern spokesperson said Wednesday. -west to CNN.

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

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

The operational emergency — experienced only in Denver, the company says — is separate from the issue the company says is responsible for the nationwide cascade of cancellations.

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

A glimmer of hope ?

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

Jeff Roberson/AP

Meanwhile, a union official representing pilots in the South West said they expected their flying schedules to be back to almost normal by the end of the working week.

Mike Santoro, vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday that they had heard the airline was planning a “nearly full schedule on Friday.”

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

The union official said Southwest’s planning infrastructure was generally working well, but added that this was not the first time they had seen a collapse leading to delays. “When you have these big weather events, it always seems to fall apart,” Santoro said.

As of 5 a.m. ET Thursday, Southwest had only canceled 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 Wednesday’s 2,914 cancellations for flights to, from or from the United States, some 2,510 of them were operated by Southwest, according to FlightAware. This represents 86% of all flights canceled in the United States.

In total, Southwest has canceled about 15,700 flights since winter weather began to disrupt air travel on Dec. 22. (This figure includes flights already canceled for Thursday.)

Southwest struggled to unwind from the tangled string cancellations that started 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 the airline hasn’t had a problem with employees not showing up for work.

“We have had no staffing issues at any station in our operation and commend our employees for the hard work they do,” Perry said.

It’s now a southwestern problem

Other US airlines flying in the same weather conditions have since recovered from the disruption caused by the storm.

In fact, American Airlines and United Airlines have capped prices on some routes served by Southwest Airlines to make their flights more accessible to stranded passengers.

Southwest does not have interlining agreements with other carriers that would allow its agents to rebook passengers on another airline, leaving travelers to explore other options.

Southwest plans to fly on a reduced schedule over the next few days to reposition crew and aircraft, airline CEO Bob Jordan said in a video released by the airline on Tuesday evening.

“We’re optimistic to be back on track before next week,” he said ahead of the drivers’ union announcement.

Buttigieg says he spoke directly to Jordan on Tuesday about the thousands of flights that were canceled this week.

“Their system has really completely melted away,” Buttigieg told Blitzer. “I have clarified that our department will hold them accountable to their responsibilities to customers, both to help them through this situation and to ensure it does not happen again.”

Those responsibilities include providing meal vouchers and hotel accommodations for passengers whose flights have been disrupted “as a result of Southwest’s decisions and actions,” a Department of Transportation spokesperson said ( DOWRY).

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 the Department of Transportation is prepared to issue fines to Southwest if the company is found to have failed to meet its legal obligations, but added that the department will take a closer look at service issues. regular airline customers.

The secretary said he told CEO Jordan that he expects Southwest to proactively offer refunds and expense 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, hotel and alternative transportation,'” points out Phil Dengler, co-founder of travel advice site The Vacationer.

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

And he also warns against piling up a big tab.

“Do some Google searches such as ‘free things to do near me.’ I doubt Southwest will reimburse for tours or other paid activities, so I wouldn’t book expensive excursions you can’t afford. “

Southwest CEO posts video apology

Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan has issued an apology to stranded travelers as the beleaguered airline continues to battle what US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called a complete “collapse” of the system. In total, Southwest has canceled more than 15,700 flights since winter conditions began disrupting air travel Dec. 22.

Jordan apologized to passengers and employees in the video released Tuesday evening.

“We are doing everything we can to get back to normal operation, and please also hear that I’m so sorry,” Jordan said.

He said that with large numbers of planes and flight crew “out of position” in dozens of cities, the airline decided to “dramatically reduce our flights to catch up.”

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

“The tools we use to recover from a 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 face again. to what’s going on right now,” Jordan said.

What is the blow to Southwest’s reputation?

“It will take a long time for Southwest Airlines to regain public trust,” Dengler said of The Vacationer.

“While extreme weather affected other airlines, Southwest experienced a real meltdown at the worst possible time. Many Americans are having to decide whether or not to wait or potentially spend thousands of dollars to get home, which may or may not be fully refunded by the Southwest.”

He noted that “some households did not even have the option of waiting because one or more members had to return to work earlier in the week. Unfortunately, this is going to be a hardship for many families, and the time wasted is going to be significant in many cases.”

“A lot of Americans only fly once a year, and they want a hassle-free experience. I think a lot of people are going to take a break from booking their next flight, and they see 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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