Southwest Airlines struggled Wednesday to restore operations after a historic meltdown and continued to ground the majority of its flights, leaving thousands of frustrated fliers stranded at airports around the country and drawing federal scrutiny into the “system failure.”
Southwest canceled 2,508 flights Wednesday, according to the flight tracker Flight Aware, with an additional 2,348 already canceled for Thursday. That follows nearly a week of turmoil that began with a severe winter storm that pounded the nation and challenged air carriers over the holidays.
But as other airlines recovered, Southwest struggled to keep its operation running. The airline has canceled almost 13,000 flights — well over 50% of its services — since Dec. 22, according to FlightAware.
Airline industry experts say the storm exposed the company’s vulnerable operations and outdated technology that stymied the carrier’s ability to bounce back from disruptions. Southwest officials say the problems are expected to linger for at least “several days.”
Southwest Chief Executive Bob Jordan apologized to customers in a video posted on Twitter on Tuesday evening and said the carrier was “focused on safely getting all of the pieces back into position to end this rolling struggle.”
But those pieces — including aircraft and flight crews — were unaccounted for in dozens of locations, Jordan said, and despite the airline’s best efforts, the company needs to “significantly reduce our flying” to one-third of its schedule over the next couple of days to recoup.
“The tools we use to recover from 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 again face what’s happening right now,” he said, adding that he remained optimistic that the airline will be back on track before next week.
Beyond the logistics of getting planes back in the air and luggage back to travelers, Southwest’s customer service reputation is on the line.
Frustrated fliers shared experiences across social media about waiting in long queues or on hold for hours with customer service agents, often getting disconnected before receiving any help, as they attempted to rebook or receive a refund for their travels. Many are hopeful they will be compensated for additional expenses they were forced to make amid the chaos such as renting a car or booking with another airline.
In an email, a Southwest spokesperson said that 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 engaged in those efforts,” said Dan Landson, Southwest’s public relations advisor.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg stepped up pressure on the company this week and told “Good Morning America” on Wednesday that the massive cancellations “indicates a system failure” and the agency will be “watching closely” to ensure Southwest meets its customer service commitments. Southwest’s compensation for passengers should cover flights along with meals, lodging and ground transportation because “this is the airline’s responsibility,” he said.
“This is going to take an extraordinary level of effort by Southwest, and we will mount an extraordinary effort to ensure that they are meeting their obligations” to their customers, Buttigieg said.
According to the Transportation Department, passengers are entitled to a refund if their flight is canceled and they choose not to travel, and if there was a “significant” change or delay to the flight — though the agency does not specifically define what is considered “significant.”
Airline agents have the discretion to offer extra 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 his or her destination, Southwest’s customer-service agents have the authority to arrange for overnight lodging for that customer and will find the customer a hotel or motel as near to the airport as possible, at no additional cost. Customer service may also arrange for ground transportation to the overnight facility.” But this requires a phone call or conversation with a Southwest agent, which has become a challenge in itself during the recent meltdown.
Southwest officials did not respond to questions about how many refunds have been issued in recent days.
The carrier’s meltdown has hit many of its would-be passengers in the pocketbook.
Southwest passenger Neavaly Touray estimated she’s built up a $3,000 tab after her connecting flight from Nashville to L.A., which originated in Washington, D.C., was canceled Monday. That includes the rental car and gas for the 35-hour drive to L.A., food and clothes for her family — three kids and two adults — and two nights at the Huntington Beach hotel she’d already paid for.
“That was our money for our vacation,” Touray, 62, said. She said she heard — both in the news and at her gate — that Southwest is encouraging travelers to buy what they needed and submit receipts through an online system.
The airline said “they would be true to honoring [their customers], and they would be giving us refunds to the things we encounter,” Touray said, adding she can’t be sure it’s guaranteed. “I am just hoping.”
After Kate Schelter’s Oakland-to-Los Angeles flight was canceled, a gate agent at the Oakland airport gave her travel vouchers, though she was told she was getting refunded, she said.
Like Touray, Schelter decided to drive with her kids, ages 9 and 12, and picked up additional expenses along the way, including a hotel room and toiletries. She said she wasn’t aware that she could get reimbursed for any of the costs and isn’t sure whether she kept the receipts. When she arrived in L.A., Schelter spent two hours in a queue at the airport to ask Southwest representatives if she could transfer her flight vouchers into a refund only to be told she needed to call customer service.
She’s also out the $120 she paid for an early-bird check-in for herself and her children, she said.
Schelter hasn’t yet tried calling Southwest, in part because she doesn’t want to spend hours on the phone only to get “potentially more bad information,” and will try to resolve the issue when she’s home from vacation, she said.
“I am sure they are so tied up right now,” she said.
Times staff photographer Irfan Khan contributed to this report.