January 30, 2023

Southwest cancellations continue as airline deals with ‘meltdown’ fallout

7 min read

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

He’s pulling no punches, referring to the situation as a complete “malfunction” of the system.

“You’ve got a company here with a lot of cleaning to do,” he has said.

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

But Thursday promises to be more of the same, with 2,349 Southwest flights already canceled, according to the flight tracking website. FlightAware. Again, the cancellations are almost all in the Southwest. As of 1:40 a.m. Thursday, only 2,410 U.S. flights have been canceled.

Above all, with operations at Denver International Airport under the microscope, the cause of the meltdown is under increasing scrutiny.

‘Operational Emergency’ in Denver

Southwest’s decision to implement “operational emergency” crew procedures last week at Denver’s airport added to a confusion of factors that contributed to the airline’s nationwide operational crisis as a major winter storm approached. Pointed to.

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

Southwest emergency staffing procedures in Denver require a doctor’s note to confirm the illness after an employee becomes ill, a Southwest spokesperson told CNN Wednesday.

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

The Washington Post cited the Southwest memo. Regarding the operational emergency, dated Dec. 21, in which the airline’s vice president of ground operations announced that the condition was imposed due to “an unusually high number of absenteeism” by Denver-based ramp employees, This includes sick calls and personal days for afternoons. evening shifts.

The operational emergency — experienced only in Denver, according to the company — is separate from the problem that the company says is responsible for a flurry of cancellations nationwide.

Denver International Airport has announced plans to conduct post-process reviews with the airport’s three major carriers — Frontier, Southwest and United — to keep the situation fresh.

Ray of hope?

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

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

Jeff Roberson/AP

Meanwhile, an official with the union representing Southwest pilots said they expect their flight schedule to be back to normal by the end of the work week.

Mike Santoro, vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday that he had been hearing the airline was planning a “mostly full schedule” for Friday.

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

The union official said Southwest’s scheduling infrastructure generally works well, but added that this is not the first time they have seen delays caused by meltdowns. “When you have these big weather events, it always seems to crash,” Santoro said.

As of 1:40 a.m. Thursday, Southwest had canceled just 39 flights for Friday, according to FlightAware.

Hard stats for the Southwest this week

Passengers tag their bags at Orlando International Airport on Dec. 28, 2022.

Passengers tag their bags at Orlando International Airport on Dec. 28, 2022.

Paul Hennessy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Of Wednesday’s 2,912 cancellations for flights departing in or out of the United States, about 2,510 of them were operated by Southwest, according to FlightAware. This accounts for 86% of all canceled flights in the United States.

In total, Southwest has canceled about 15,700 flights since winter weather began disrupting air travel on Dec. 22.

Southwest has struggled to untangle itself from the tangled string. Of the cancellations that started with the winter storm. Union leaders say software and manual processes are used to reassign flight crews, who are limited in the number of hours they work for safety reasons.

Southwest spokesman Chris Perry told CNN that the airline is not experiencing any problems with employees not showing up to work.

“We have not experienced staffing issues at any of our stations during our operations and we commend our people for their heroic work,” Perry said.

This is now the problem of the Southwest.

Other US airlines flying in the same weather conditions have since recovered from the storm’s disruptions.

In fact, American Airlines and United Airlines have. Limited prices to make its flights more accessible to stranded passengers on certain routes served by Southwest Airlines.

Southwest does not have interline agreements with other carriers that allow its agents to rebook passengers on a different airline, leaving passengers responsible for finding other options.

Airline CEO Bob Jordan said in a video released by the airline late Tuesday that Southwest plans to fly less scheduled flights in the next few days to accommodate crew and aircraft.

“We are hopeful to be back on the track before next week,” he said before the announcement by the pilots’ union.

Buttig says he spoke directly with Jordan on Tuesday about the thousands of flights that have been canceled this week.

“Their system has really completely melted down,” Buttig told Blitzer. “I made it clear that our department will hold them accountable for their responsibilities to consumers to get through this situation and ensure it does not happen again.”

Those obligations include providing meal vouchers and hotel accommodations for passengers whose flights were affected “as a result of Southwest’s decisions and actions,” a Department of Transportation (DOT) spokeswoman said.

US 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 that the Department of Transportation is prepared to pursue penalties against Southwest if there is evidence that the company has failed to meet its legal obligations, but added that The department will continuously monitor customer service issues in the airline.

The secretary said he told CEO Jordan that he expects Southwest to proactively offer refunds and expense reimbursements to affected passengers without asking.

What should customers 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,'” explains Phil Dengler, co-founder of the travel advice site. vacationer.

“While Southwest is vague about how much they will charge, 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 cautions against piling up a big tab.

“Do a few Google searches like ‘free things to do near me’. I doubt Southwest is going to pay for tours or other paid activities, so I wouldn’t do an expensive excursion you can’t afford.”

Southwest CEO issues video apology

Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan issued an apology to stranded passengers as the beleaguered airline grapples with what U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has described as a complete “disruption” of the system. In total, Southwest has canceled more than 15,700 flights since winter weather began disrupting air travel on Dec. 22.

Jordan apologized to passengers and employees. video Released on Tuesday evening.

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

With large numbers of aircraft and flight crews “out of position” in dozens of cities, the airline decided to “significantly reduce its flight capacity to catch up,” he said.

While Jordan acknowledged difficulties in the company’s response, the statement suggested he did not foresee major changes to Southwest’s operating plans in response to the massive cancellations.

“The tools we use to recover from disruptions work well for us 99% of the time, but obviously we need to look at our existing plans to upgrade systems for these extreme situations. There is a need to double down so that we never again have to deal with what is happening now,” Jordan said.

What damage has been done to Southwest’s reputation?

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

“While severe weather has affected other airlines, Southwest faced real disaster at the worst possible time. Many Americans have to decide whether to wait it out or fly home as soon as possible. Thousands of dollars will be spent that may or may not be fully reimbursed by Southwest.”

He noted that “some households didn’t even have the option of waiting because one or more members had to return to work earlier this week. Unfortunately, this proved to be a difficult time for many families. is, and time is going to be wasted. Be important in many respects.”

“A large portion of Americans only fly once a year, and they want a hassle-free experience. I’m sure many people are going to pause when booking their next flight and consider Southwest Airlines all the time.” Let’s look at the cheaper option.”

CNN’s Gregory Wallace, Andy Rose, Andy Babineau, Adrian Broadus, Dave Alsop, Nick Valencia, David Goldman, Leslie Perot, Carlos Suarez and Ross Levitt contributed to this story.

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