(CNN) — Relief is still days away for passengers who booked with Southwest Airlines this week as the beleaguered airline continues to grapple with what US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has called a complete system collapse.
In all, Southwest has canceled more than 15,700 flights since winter weather began disrupting air traffic on Dec. 22. That figure includes more than 2,300 flights canceled before Thursday. Other U.S. airlines have since recovered from the storm disruptions.
Denver International Airport leads the way in cancellations on Wednesday. Nearly half of Wednesday flights are canceled at Chicago Midway and Dallas Love Field.
Southwest plans to fly on a shortened schedule in the coming days to move crew and aircraft, airline CEO Bob Jordan said in a video released by the airline on Tuesday. “We are optimistic to be back on track for next week,” said Jordan.
Buttigieg says he spoke directly with Jordan on Tuesday about the thousands of flights canceled this week.
“Their system has really completely melted down,” Buttigieg told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday.
“I’ve made it clear that our department will hold them accountable for their responsibilities to customers, both to help them through this situation and to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Those responsibilities include providing meal vouchers and hotel accommodations for passengers whose flights were disrupted “as a result of Southwest’s decisions and actions,” a Department of Transportation spokesman said Tuesday.
U.S. airlines are also required to provide refunds to passengers whose flights have been canceled and who have chosen not to travel, the DOT said.
Tuesday in a nutshell
CNN’s Carlos Suarez reports from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, where travelers brave long lines and canceled flights after a massive winter storm swept through the US.
More than 3,200 flights in, to or from the United States were canceled on Tuesday, according to FlightAware.
Of those canceled flights, some 2,694 were Southwest’s – a staggering 84% of all flight cancellations in the United States.
Long lines of travelers trying to rebook or transfer were seen Tuesday at Southwest ticket counters at multiple US airports, as huge piles of uncollected bags continued to grow as passengers struggled to reclaim their luggage at airports including Chicago’s Midway International, Harry Reid in Las Vegas. Vegas and William P. Hobby Airport in Houston.
Southwest Airlines does not have interline agreements with other airlines that allow its agents to rebook passengers to another airline, limiting options for stranded passengers.
“Southwest is unique in the industry because we don’t have codeshare partners. That’s just part of our business model,” a Southwest spokesperson told CNN.
Passenger Trisha Jones told CNN at the airport in Atlanta that she and her partner had been traveling for five days to get home to Wichita, Kansas, after disembarking from a cruise in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
After her flight was canceled, she stayed with relatives and then fled to Atlanta to catch a connecting flight.
“We were lucky because we were in Fort Lauderdale — my family lives in Tampa Bay, so we were able to rent a car to visit my family for Christmas,” Jones said. “We’ve seen a lot of families sleeping on the floor, and it just breaks my heart.”
Buttigieg: ‘A lot of cleanup work to do’
Canceled Southwest Airlines flights will be displayed on an information board at California’s Oakland International Airport on Tuesday.
Southwest has blamed the travel disaster on several factors, including delays from winter storms, aggressive flight schedules and aging infrastructure.
“As far as I can tell, Southwest can’t even pinpoint where their own crew is, let alone their own passengers, let alone luggage,” Buttigieg said, adding that he also spoke to leaders of the airline’s unions representing flight attendants and pilots.
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.
“I have conveyed to the CEO our expectation that they will do everything in their power to take care of passengers and address this,” he said.
Buttigieg told CNN that the Department of Transportation is ready to issue fines against Southwest if there is evidence that the company has failed to meet its legal obligations, but he added that the department will take a closer look at consistent customer service issues at the airline.
“While all the other parts of the airline system have been on the road to recovery and getting better every day, this airline has actually moved in the opposite direction,” Buttigieg said.
“You’ve got a company here that has a lot of cleaning to do,” he said.
Southwest CEO issues video apology
“We are doing everything we can to return to normal operation, and please also hear that I am truly sorry,” Jordan said.
He said that with large numbers of aircraft and flight crews “out of position” in dozens of cities, the airline decided “to significantly reduce our flights to catch up”.
While Jordan acknowledged issues with the company’s response, the statement suggested he did not foresee major changes to Southwest’s operational plans in response to the mass cancellations.
“The tools we use to recover from disruptions work well for us 99% of the time, but it is clear that we need to double down on our pre-existing plans to upgrade systems for these extreme conditions so that we never again face what happening now.’ Jordan said.
Can passengers do anything?
Scott’s Cheap Flights spokesperson Katy Nastro shares her tips on what to do if your flight is delayed or cancelled.
Southwest has warned that this week’s cancellations and delays are expected to continue for several more days.
So what should customers do?
“Every airline in the country is currently jam-packed, so your chance of even finding a seat — let alone at a half-decent price — is getting smaller by the hour,” Potter said.
“Travellers in the middle of this should be sure to keep all their receipts: other flights, a rental car, hotel accommodations, meals, whatever,” Potter said.
“The main hotline for US airlines will become clogged with other passengers getting rebooked. To quickly reach an agent, call one of the airline’s dozens of international offices,” said Scott Keyes. Those agents can handle U.S. reservations, Keyes said.
Southwest: ‘Keep your receipts’
After their flight was canceled, 13 strangers decided to rent a van and drive all the way from Orlando to Knoxville, Tennessee.
Southwest spokesman Jay McVay said at a news conference Monday night at Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport that the airline will do everything possible to resolve the challenges passengers have experienced, including “hotels, driving assistance, vans.. . rental cars to try and get these people to go home as soon as possible.”
He promised that all customers, including those who had already left the airport or made alternative arrangements on their own, would also be taken care of.
“If you’re already gone, take care of yourself, do what you need to do for your family, keep your receipts,” McVay shared. “We’ll make sure they’re taken care of, that’s not a question.”
What’s wrong from a pilot’s point of view
Passengers will search for their luggage at California’s Hollywood Burbank Airport on Tuesday.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
He described last week’s storm as a catalyst that caused major technical problems.
“What has gone wrong is that our scheduling software IT infrastructure is massively outdated,” 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 the other major airlines have. We fly with a point-to-point network, which can put our crews in the wrong places, with no planes.”
He added: “It’s frustrating for the pilots, the flight attendants and especially our passengers. We’re tired of apologizing to Southwest, the airline’s pilots, our hearts go out to all the passengers, they do real.”
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.