New York State In-depth

Southwest planes are back in the air – and the apologies keep flying too –

By Gregory Wallace and Forrest Brown, CNN

The Southwest Airlines chief has vowed he will “make amends” to passengers hit by his company’s disastrous holiday crisis as the airline made good on its promise to resume better service on Friday.

“This has impacted so many people — so many customers — over the holiday season,” CEO Bob Jordan said in an interview with ABC’s Good Morning America.

“I am very sorry about that. There’s just no way we can even come close to apologizing enough.”

Jordan said the passenger reimbursements would cover traveler expenses, including “rental cars, hotel rooms, meals, booking customers on other airlines – all of that will be part of what we cover.”

“We’re offering refunds, covering expenses – after that we’ll go back with more,” he said. “Security aside, there is no greater focus at this time than taking care of our customers, reuniting them with their bags and processing refunds.”

The airline’s troubles began with the massive, frigid winter storm, but they lingered — and even worsened — in Southwest as other major airlines recovered. Nearly 15,800 Southwest flights have been canceled since December 22, shaking the company to the core.

“This was just an unprecedented storm for everyone – for all airlines,” Jordan said. “The storm had an impact, but we had an impact beyond the storm that obviously affected the Southwest in a very different way.”

How the flights went on Friday

Jordan said the airline will fly its full flight schedule of around 3,900 flights on Friday. It works as promised – things have improved a lot, a lot.

Flight tracking site FlightAware shows Southwest has canceled only 43 flights by 6:00 p.m. ET, or just 1% of total flights.

In fact, it was the best day to fly since the pre-Christmas winter storm first swept through much of the United States. As of 6 p.m. ET, a total of just 153 flights have been canceled for Friday. There were nearly 4,400 delays in the US. Southwest accounted for around 755 of these, or about 19% of flights.

As for Saturday, as of 6:00 p.m. ET Friday, there was not a single cancellation from the Southwest, and only 23 for the US.

Southwest has established Southwest.com/traveldisruption to allow customers to submit reimbursement and reimbursement requests for meals, hotel and alternate transportation; as well as to connect customers with their luggage.

While planes are back in the air, mountains of misplaced luggage still lie scattered across the country.

Take the case of Southwest passenger Lisa Carpenter. She’s finally on her way home to Phoenix after being stranded in Chicago this week. She said she received a call from Southwest Friday morning saying her missing luggage had arrived at its original destination and that FedEx would ship the bags to her home.

“My bags made it to Albany, New York, but I didn’t make it. I don’t know how but they didn’t have a flight for me. I don’t know how that happened, but I didn’t come there to see my family,” Carpenter told CNN.

She also said she plans to buy a baggage tracking device before she travels again and wants to fly on other airlines.

“I will be very skeptical about booking with Southwest again,” she said. “I was out here alone and had to buy new clothes.”

Southwest DOT: Serve the passengers

Senior US government officials were concerned, to say the least, about how Southwest got to this point. And they’re demanding that Southwest do things right — or face financial repercussions.

The DOT on Thursday officially warned Southwest that it faces consequences for not doing justice to stranded and uncomfortable passengers.

Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg wrote in a letter to Jordan that officials will take action against the airline if it fails to deliver on promises to reimburse passengers for alternative transportation, as well as provide meals, hotels, refunds and baggage reconciliation.

Sanctions include the possibility of imposing fines.

“It would be unfair and deceptive practice to fail to fulfill this obligation to passengers,” Buttigieg wrote, specifically referring to alternative travel refunds.

“The Department will use its investigative and enforcement powers to the fullest to hold Southwest accountable if it fails to honor promises made to reimburse passengers for alternative transportation.”

These fines could be significant.

“The airline told me they would go above and beyond what was asked of them,” Buttigieg said in an interview with NBC News on Thursday. “I’m trying to make sure they actually do that, and if they don’t, we’re in a position to levy tens of thousands of dollars per violation per passenger in fines.”

The airline’s chief commercial officer Ryan Green on Thursday expressed regret over the collapse of services and vowed to rebuild customer relationships, which have hit rock bottom.

“My personal apology is the first step in putting things in order after many changed plans and the experience fell short of what you expected us to be,” Green said in a video.

“We’re continuing to work to make amends and you’ll be hearing about it soon. But for now, our focus is on restoring the reliability and level of customer experience that we have come to expect from us and you have come to expect from us.”

His remarks came as Buttigieg made his own damning assessment of the Southwest’s troubles, calling the situation a complete “collapse.”

“They have a company here that has a lot to clean up,” he said.

People want to know: What caused this?

Ask Southwest Airline staff about their company’s technology. You won’t get many raves.

As Southwest grew from a Texas-based three-plane low-cost airline to one of the largest in the country, union officials representing Southwest workers said the company has not kept pace with technological changes. And they say they have been raising concerns for years.

“We’ve targeted them every year since 2015,” Mike Santoro, captain and vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, told CNN.

She and the airline itself described an internal process that requires multiple departments to manually redesign the airline’s flight schedule – a system that works “the vast majority of the time,” the airline said in a statement.

When something goes wrong, Southwest’s software — including the crew’s dispatching system — leaves much of the work of rebuilding this delicate network to manual.

Some understanding passengers

Some passengers took all this in stride and showed sympathy for Southwest.

Several people at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport spoke to CNN’s Nick Valencia on Thursday about their travel experiences with Southwest this holiday season.

“I mean, it just goes without saying. This is air travel, everyone trying to get everywhere at once. Unfortunately, Southwest has taken the brunt of this year’s unfortunate travel situation,” Roderic Hister told CNN.

When asked what he thought about the lack of queues at the counters in the south-west of the airport, Hister said: “Maybe that speaks to the improvements they are trying to make because there aren’t long queues, people don’t complain here . So, maybe you know that self-redemption efforts are working.”

Winston Williams, standing next to Hister, said he intends to continue using the airline in the future. “I like Southwest. I mean, the bags are free,” Williams said.

But many people still take a hard line with Southwest.

Elaine Chao, who served as Secretary of Transportation during the Trump administration, described Southwest Airlines’ failure as “a failure of incredible proportions.”

She told CNN it was “a perfect storm of all the things that have been going on with the company. It will take a very long time” to rebuild consumer confidence, she added.

Phil Dengler, co-founder of travel advice website The Vacationer, agrees.

“It will be a long time before Southwest Airlines regains public confidence. While the extreme weather impacted other airlines, Southwest experienced a true meltdown at the worst possible time,” he told CNN Travel in an email on Thursday.

“A large portion of Americans only fly once a year and want a hassle-free experience. I think a lot of people will pause when booking their next flight and see Southwest Airlines as the cheapest option,” Dengler said.

“While the low prices are tempting, this meltdown will prompt many travelers to explore other low-cost options.”

Dengler warns to be careful about these promised refunds.

“Southwest says, ‘We will honor reasonable requests for reimbursement for meals, hotel and alternate transportation,'” he said. “While Southwest is vague on how much they will refund, I would avoid expensive hotels or restaurants. Use Google Hotels to find hotels near the airport you are stranded at.”

And he also warns against racking up a big bill.

“Do a few Google searches e.g. B. after ‘free activities near me’. I doubt Southwest will reimburse tours or other paid activities, so I wouldn’t book expensive excursions that you can’t afford.”

The CNN Wire
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CNN’s Andy Rose, Andi Babineau, Adrienne Broaddus, Dave Alsap, Nick Valencia, Devon Sayers, David Goldman, Leslie Perrot, Carlos Suarez, Karla Cripps, and Ross Levitt contributed to this story.

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