Pete Buttigieg warns Southwest CEO that he will hold the airline accountable

(CNN) – Southwest Airline’s operational meltdown has put the Dallas-based company under intense scrutiny — not only from stranded passengers and media reports, but also from U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

He spoke directly with Southwest CEO Bob Jordan on Tuesday about the thousands of flights that have been canceled this week, with no immediate indication of when passengers can rebook.

“Their system really melted down completely,” Buttigieg told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday.

“I made it clear that our department will hold them accountable for their responsibilities to customers, both to get them through this situation and to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Passengers booked with beleaguered Southwest Airlines were hoping for much-needed relief from cancellations and delays. But those hopes – for now – have been dashed.

Of the more than 2,640 cancellations already made for Wednesday, almost all of them belong to the Southwest.

All other US airlines combined account for only approximately 155 of those canceled flights.

Latest flight cancellation and delay data

A look at the current numbers shows why Buttigieg is so concerned.

Almost 3,200 flights into, into or out of the United States were already canceled for Tuesday as of 9:30 p.m. ET, according to the flight tracking website FlightAware.

Of those canceled flights, about 2,680 were Southwest flights. That was nearly two-thirds of all Southwest flights for Tuesday and a staggering 84% of all canceled flights in the United States.

In contrast, competitors Alaska Airlines had 10% of canceled flights and United Airlines only 3%.

The airports most affected by Tuesday’s cancellations were Denver International, followed by Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas, Chicago Midway International, Baltimore/Washington International, Nashville International and Dallas Love Field.

There were almost 6,800 delays as of 9:30 PM ET on Tuesday.

Today’s cancellations followed a full day of travel chaos after Christmaswith 3,989 flights canceled on Monday – 2,909 of those were Southwest flights.

Buttigieg takes Southwest to work

Southwest blamed the travel disaster on a combination of factors, including winter storm delays, aggressive flight scheduling and aging infrastructure.

“From what I can tell, Southwest is unable to locate even where their own crews are, let alone their own passengers, let alone their baggage,” Buttigieg said, adding that he has also spoken with leaders of the airline unions representing flight attendants and pilots.

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

“I have conveyed to the chief executive our expectation that they will do everything they can to look after passengers and deal with this,” he said.

Buttigieg told CNN that the Transportation Department is prepared to impose fines against Southwest if there is evidence that the company has failed to comply with its legal obligations, but added that the department will take a closer look at the airline’s persistent customer service problems.

“While all other parts of the aviation system are moving toward recovery and improving every day, with this airline it’s actually moving in the opposite direction,” Buttigieg said.

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

Video apology

Jordan apologized to passengers and staff in a video statement published by the company on Tuesday evening.

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

Although Jordan acknowledged problems with the company’s response, the statement suggested he did not foresee massive changes to Southwest’s procedures in response to the mass cancellations.

“The tools we use to recover from an outage serve us well 99% of the time, but we obviously need to double down on our existing plans to upgrade systems for these extreme circumstances so that we never face what happened again.” happening right now,” Jordan said.

“We are optimistic to be back on track before next week.”

So what can Southwest travelers do?

Katie Nastro, spokesperson for Scott’s Cheap Flights, shares her tips for what to do if your flight is delayed or canceled.

Southwest warned that this week’s cancellations and delays are expected to continue for several more days.

So where does that leave customers who are in real traffic jams? What should they do?

“First and foremost, passengers still waiting at Southwest who need to get somewhere should try to book a flight on another airline as soon as possible … right now, really,” said Kyle Potter, executive editor of travel tips website Thrifty travelerin an email to CNN Travel late Tuesday afternoon.

“Every airline in the country is overbooked right now, so your chances of even finding a seat — let alone at even a half-decent price — are diminishing by the hour,” Potter said.

“Travelers in the midst of this should be sure to keep all their receipts: other flights, rental car, hotel nights, meals, everything,” Potter said.

If you’ve been left stranded and your efforts to reach a customer service agent have gone nowhere, the founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights suggests trying an international number.

“The main hotline for US airlines will be jammed with other passengers being rebooked. To get in touch with an agent quickly, call any of the airline’s dozens of international offices,” said Scott Keyes.

“Agents can handle your booking just like the US-based ones, but there’s virtually no need to wait to get through.”

Multiplication problems

The Southwest was particularly hard hit due to a cascade of problems.

The storm hit two of its biggest hubs — Chicago and Denver — at a time when winter illnesses were stretching staff rosters. Southwest’s aggressive schedule and underinvestment have also been blamed.

The winter storm that swept across the country was ill-timed for travelers, who began taking flights over the Christmas week back to pre-pandemic levels.

On Christmas Day, 3,178 flights were canceled and 6,870 were delayed, according to FlightAware. There were a total of 3,487 canceled flights on Christmas Eve, according to FlightAware.

Friday was the worst day of that streak with 5,934 cancellations, while Thursday saw almost 2,700 cancellations.

Long queues and baggage accumulation at airports

Travelers wait at the Southwest Airlines baggage counter to pick up their luggage after canceled flights at Los Angeles International Airport, Monday, Dec. 26, 2022, in Los Angeles.

Eugene Garcia/AP

Long lines were already forming at the Southwest ticket counter at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport Tuesday morning as passengers waited to try to rebook flights or make connections.

And at Chicago’s Midway International, huge piles of unclaimed bags piled up as passengers scrambled to retrieve their bags. There were similar scenes at other airports, including Harry Reid in Las Vegas and William P. Hobby Airport in Houston.

Passenger Tricia Jones told CNN at the Atlanta airport that she and her partner had been traveling for five days trying to get home to Wichita, Kansas, after getting off a cruise in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

After her flight was canceled, she stayed with relatives, then diverted to Atlanta to catch a connecting flight.

“We were lucky because we were in Fort Lauderdale — my family lives in the Tampa Bay area, so we were able to rent a car to go see my family for Christmas,” Jones said. “We’ve seen a lot of families sleeping on the floor and it just breaks my heart.”

Southwest: “Keep Your Receipts”

A spokesman for Southwest Airlines said the recent winter storm was to blame for the cascade of flight cancellations.

“As the storm continued to sweep across the country, it continued to affect many of our larger stations, and so the cancellations just piled up one after another to 100 to 150 to 1,000,” Jay McVeigh said at a news conference at William P. Hobby in Houston on Monday night.

“With these cancellations and as a result, we find ourselves with crews and aircraft that are not in place and not in the cities they need to be in to continue our operations.”

McVeigh said the company’s first priority right now is safety. “We want to make sure that we operate these flights safely and that we have flight crews that have legal and sufficient time to operate these flights,” he said.

“We’re going to do whatever we need to do to deal with the challenges we’ve had right now,” he said, including “hotels, transportation assistance, vans … rental cars to try to ensure that these people go home as fast as possible.”

He promised that all customers, even those who had already left the airport or made alternative arrangements on their own, would also be taken care of.

“If you’ve already left, take care of yourself, do what you need to do for your family, keep your receipts,” McVeigh said. “We’ll make sure they’re taken care of, that’s not a question.

What is wrong from a pilot’s perspective

Speaking to CNN on Tuesday, Southwest Airlines Pilots Association vice president Capt. Mike Santoro said the problems facing the Southwest were the worst layoffs he’s had in 16 years with the airline.

He described last week’s storm as the catalyst that helped cause major technical problems.

“What has gone wrong is that our IT infrastructure for planning software is significantly out of date,” he said. “It can’t handle the number of pilots, flight attendants we have in the system, with our complex route network.

“We don’t have the normal hub that other major airlines have. We fly a point-to-point network, which can put our crews in the wrong places, without aircraft.”

He added: “This is disappointing for pilots, flight attendants and especially our passengers. We are tired of apologizing for Southwest, the pilots at the airline, our hearts go out to all passengers, they really do.”

In other developments

Pete Buttigieg warns Southwest CEO that he will hold the airline accountable

Buffalo, New York, was particularly hard hit by the winter storm.

Joe Viera/AFP/Getty Images

• In hard-hit Western New York, Buffalo International Airport said in its latest tweet that it does not plan to resume passenger flights before 11 a.m. ET on Wednesday, pushing the expected reopening another 24 hours later than previously expected.
• Greyhound, the largest provider of intercity bus service, issued a service signal on Tuesday morning, saying many scheduled services in the Upper Northeast continue to be disrupted until further notice due to the winter weather. Affected cities include Buffalo, Cleveland and Syracuse.

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

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