Southwest planes are back in the air — and the excuses keep flying, too — CNN

(CNN) — The Southwest Airlines boss has vowed to “make amends” for passengers affected by his company’s disastrous Christmas crisis, as the airline kept 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 on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

‘I’m so sorry. There’s just no way to apologize nearly enough.”

Jordan said passenger allowances would cover travelers’ expenses, including “rental cars, hotel rooms, meals, customer bookings on other airlines — that will all be part of what we cover.”

“We offer refunds, cover costs – then we go back with even more,” he said. “Besides safety, there’s no bigger focus right now than taking care of our customers, reuniting them with their bags, getting refunds processed.”

The airline’s troubles began with the massive, freezing winter storm, but they lingered — and got worse — in Southwest as other major carriers recovered. Nearly 15,800 Southwest flights have been canceled since Dec. 22 in a disruption that has shaken the company to its foundations.

“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 clearly affected Southwest very differently.”

How the Friday flights went

Jordan said the airline would fly its full schedule of about 3,900 flights on Friday. It works as promised – things have improved much, much.

The site for tracking flights FlightAware shows Southwest has cancelled only 43 flights before 6pm ET, or just 1% of the total number of flights.

In fact, it’s been the best day to fly since the winter storm first swept through much of the US before Christmas. There are only 153 total flights canceled for Friday as of 6pm ET. As for the delays, there were nearly 4,400 in the US. Southwest accounted for about 755 of those, or about 19% of the flights.

As for Saturday, not a single Southwest cancellation had been posted as of Friday 6pm ET, and only 23 for the US.

Southwest is set up for customers to submit refunds and refund requests for meals, hotel and replacement transportation; as well as to connect customers to their luggage.

Luggage aftermath

A Salt Lake City police officer and his K-9 partner inspect unclaimed bags at Southwest Airlines baggage claim at Salt Lake City International Airport on Thursday.

A Salt Lake City police officer and his K-9 partner inspect unclaimed bags at Southwest Airlines baggage claim at Salt Lake City International Airport on Thursday.

Rick Bowmer/AP

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

Take the case of Southwest passenger Lisa Carpenter. She’s finally going home to Phoenix after being stranded in Chicago this week. She said she received a call from Southwest Friday morning with news that her missing luggage had reached 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. 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 get there to see my family” , Carpenter told CNN.

She also said she plans to purchase a tracking device for her luggage before she travels again, and plans to fly with other carriers.

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

DOT to the southwest: Passengers straight ahead

Top U.S. government officials are baffled, to say the least, at how Southwest got to this point. And they’re demanding that Southwest put things right — or they face financial consequences.

The DOT formally alerted Southwest on Thursday that it will face consequences if it fails to make amends due to stranded and nuisance passengers.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg wrote in a letter to Jordan that officials will take action against the airline if it fails to honor promises to reimburse passengers for alternative transportation costs, and to provide meals, hotels, refunds and baggage reunification.

The sanctions include the possibility to impose fines.

“It would be an unfair and deceptive practice to fail to honor this commitment to passengers,” Buttigieg wrote, referring specifically to alternative travel reimbursements.

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

Those fines can be substantial.

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

Regrets and repairs

A traveler examines luggage in the baggage claim area in the Southwest Airlines terminal at St. Louis Lambert International Airport on Wednesday.

A traveler examines luggage in the baggage claim area in the Southwest Airlines terminal at St. Louis Lambert International Airport on Wednesday.

Jeff Roberson/AP

The airline’s chief commercial officer, Ryan Green, expressed regret over the collapse in services on Thursday and pledged to rebuild customer relationships that have sunk to rock bottom.

“My personal apology is the first step in making things right after many plans changed and experiences fell short of your expectations of us,” Green said in a video.

“We’re continuing to work to make this right, and you’ll hear more about that soon. But for now, we’re focused on restoring the reliability and level of customer experience we expect from ourselves, and you expect from us.”

His comments came as Buttigieg made his own damning assessment of Southwest’s problems, calling the situation a complete “meltdown.”

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

People want to know: What caused this?

Ask Southwest Airlines employees 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 nation’s largest, union officials representing Southwest’s employees say the company hasn’t kept pace with technological change. And they say they have been expressing concerns for years.

“We’ve been hammering on them every year since 2015,” Mike Santoro, a 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 schedule — a system that works “the vast majority of the time,” the airline said in a statement.

If something goes wrong, the Southwest software – including the crew scheduling tool – leaves much of the work of rebuilding that delicate network to manual work.

Some understanding passengers

Some passengers took all this to heart and showed some 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’s just part of it. This is air travel, everyone is trying to get everywhere at once. Unfortunately, Southwest took 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 Southwest counters at the airport, Hister said: “Maybe it speaks to the improvements they’re trying to make, because there aren’t long queues, people aren’t complaining here. So, maybe you know, the self-redeeming efforts are working.”

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

Damaged reputation

Bride-to-be Katie Demko talks to CNN’s Kaitlan Collins about missing her wedding in Belize after Southwest Airlines canceled thousands of flights.

But many people still take a hard line with Southwest.

Elaine Chao, who served as secretary of transportation during the Trump administration, described the Southwest Airlines outage as “a failure of incredible proportions.”

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

Phil Dengler, co-founder of the travel advice website The vacationeragrees.

“It will take a long time for Southwest Airlines to regain public confidence. While the extreme weather was hitting other airlines, Southwest experienced a true meltdown at the worst possible time,” he said in an email to CNN Travel on Thursday.

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

“While the low prices are attractive, this collapse will lead many travelers to explore other low-cost options.”

What customers should do

Dengler cautions to proceed with caution regarding these promised refunds.

“Southwest says, ‘We will honor reasonable requests for reimbursement of meals, hotel and replacement transportation,'” he said. “While Southwest is vague about how much they reimburse, I’d avoid expensive hotels or restaurants. Use Google Hotels to find hotels near the airport where you’re stranded.”

And he also warns against piling up a big bill.

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

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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