After days of chaos, canceled flights and stranded travelers, Southwest Airlines said it plans to resume normal operations “with minimal disruption” on Friday.
But it’s unclear how long it will take passengers who spent days in limbo to reach their final destinations, reunite with their luggage or receive compensation for the week-long collapse.
“With another holiday weekend full of important connections for our valued customers and employees, we look forward to returning to a state of normalcy,” the airline said in a statement Thursday.
Southwest was only able to fly a third of its normal schedule on Thursday, canceling 2,362 flights, according to flight tracker FlightAware. As of Thursday afternoon, 53 flights from Los Angeles International Airport were canceled – the majority by Southwest – along with 54 inbound flights and dozens more listed as delayed.
But the Dallas carrier canceled less than 40 scheduled Friday flights across the country, or less than 1% of its total schedule for the day, according to FlightAware.
The airline has been plagued by problems since last week when a winter storm battered much of the country, upending travel plans and causing widespread flight disruptions.
Although much of the industry recovered relatively quickly, Southwest remained in turmoil for days.
At the height of the cancellations, the southwest gates and terminals of LAX and other area airports were packed with passengers who showed up for flights they learned were grounded. Many travelers lined up for hours asking for help.
By Thursday, the chaos in the terminals had calmed down; LAX’s southwest terminal was eerily quiet, though baggage claim remained lined with a mass of bags washed up around idle carousels.
At the counter, a handful of travelers checked in for their flights. They were lucky: of the 24 departures announced on the screens, 15 were canceled.
Patricia Bernard, 60, of Laurel, Md., planned to spend Christmas in Los Angeles with her family.
After a flight reshuffle, she had booked a direct southwest flight for the morning of Dec. 23 from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
“I arrived at 4 a.m. to find that my flight had been canceled – no notice, nothing,” Bernard said.
Southwest rebooked her for December 26, meaning she would miss Christmas. Instead, Bernard’s children found her a flight on another airline, and she made it on time.
Now, a week later, waiting in the terminal for his return flight to the southwest with his granddaughter, Bernard said it could be his last with the airline.
“Their customer service leaves more to be desired,” she said. “I’m switching to Delta.”
While the company is scrambling to address immediate complaints, refund requests and scheduling issues from its passengers, patching up its reputation will be just as important if Southwest is to avoid losing loyal customers, according to public relations experts. and in crisis management.
“Unless they demonstrate to customers that this issue, which is unique to Southwest Airlines, has been resolved, the carrier risks snowballing into a significant issue that will negatively impact the brand for years to come. said Eric Rose, a crisis and reputation management expert at Los Angeles communications firm EKA.
The airline has canceled more than 13,000 flights — well over 50% of its schedule — since Dec. 22, according to FlightAware, and many more have been delayed. The massive disruptions have affected thousands of travellers, leaving them stranded at dozens of airports across the country without their luggage or rummaging through their pockets for other travel options, prompting a surge in demand for passenger cars. lease. The chaos overwhelmed employees, including pilots, flight attendants and gate attendants.
“We know that even our deepest apologies — to our customers, our employees, and all those affected by this disruption — don’t go that far,” the company’s statement said Thursday. “We have a lot of work ahead of us, including investing in new solutions to manage large-scale disruptions.”
The airline has rolled out a new webpage for customers to submit refund and reimbursement requests for meals, hotels and alternative transportation, and to log in with baggage.
A day after general manager Bob Jordan apologized to the flyers, business manager Ryan Green doubled down on a undertakes that the company “would do everything we can, and work day and night to repair our relationship with you.”
“My personal apologies are the first step in making things right after many plans changed and experiences did not meet your expectations,” he said.
The company is the nation’s largest low-cost carrier, flying to various airports in California, including Los Angeles, Oakland, Burbank, Sacramento, San Diego and San Jose.
The devastating winter storm that ravaged the country just before Christmas threw holiday plans into chaos. And the Southwest fiasco was the “perfect storm” of well-known problems, industry experts and union leaders at the company said. They cited the company’s outdated technology and vulnerable operations that are particularly susceptible to disruptions, let alone multiple weather events from coast to coast.
Union leaders pointed out that Southwest reinstated dividend payments to shareholders this month for the first time since the pandemic began. The company has paid out $428 million to shareholders – money critics say it would have been better spent on upgrades to the carrier’s aging technology.
Experts explained that the American airline giant operates on a unique flight pattern – planes circulate from one destination to another instead of in and out of certain hubs – which leaves little room for the error. It also has no partnerships with other airlines to facilitate new bookings, and it operates with few free seats or spare crews. Delays can quickly fly away.
The airline said it would honor “reasonable requests for reimbursement for meals, hotel and alternative transportation” for issues from Dec. 24 through Jan. 2 on a case-by-case basis. South West executives also highlighted a number of updates to the company’s websites for affected travellers, including features allowing travelers traveling through January 2 to change their itineraries online, forms to help travelers to locate lost luggage and claim forms for cancellations or incurred expenses. because of the disturbances.
Danielle Pientka said she spent eight straight hours on hold for an agent from the South West this week – and still hadn’t made it through. Her mother’s flight home to San Antonio was canceled Monday without warning, and the next available flight was not until five days later.
“We’re usually big Southwest fans…so this was a huge disappointment for us,” said Pientka, who lives in a suburb of Baltimore. “We know things are happening with the airlines. You can plan a day or two, but it was almost a week.
The crisis has brought increased pressure from current and former lawmakers and consumer rights advocates, who are calling on the company to not only help stranded travelers, but also ensure they are properly reimbursed. .
Elaine Chao, Secretary of Transportation under President Trump, told “CNN This Morning” on Thursday that Southwest was once a “paragon” in the aviation industry in part because of its customers and working relationships – all of which “have been called into question,” she said.
“They know they have a lot of work to do to bring back and rebuild the loyalty and trust they had with the traveling public,” Chao said. “They are going to be under the control of the regulators, the administration. They have a lot to do.”
Current Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg said “Good Morning America” Wednesday that the massive cancellation crisis “indicates a system failure” and that the agency is “monitoring closely” to ensure that Southwest meets its customer service commitments. Southwest’s compensation for passengers should cover flights as well as meals, accommodation and ground transportation, because “it’s the responsibility of the airline,” he said.
Charlie Leocha, President of Consumer Advocacy Group United Travelerscalled Southwest one of the “most reputable airlines,” but said he had questions about the airline’s plans to reimburse travelers for extra expenses beyond their canceled fare.
“I don’t know how it’s going to work because they said it would be within reason,” Leocha said, suggesting the wording is ambiguous and could favor the airline.
Chase Lovelace, 30, of Nashville and his wife arrived four hours early at LAX on Thursday for their return flight to the southwest. They feared the airport might be busy given the recent chaos, but instead found a nearly empty ticketing area.
“We were supposed to leave on Boxing Day,” Lovelace said. “It was the first flight they could rebook us on.”
After spending all day Monday at the airport, the couple decided to book a hotel on their own.
“We keep the receipts, hoping to be reimbursed whenever they find out,” Lovelace said.
When asked if he might prioritize other airlines for future travel, Lovelace said: ‘Get us home first. … Maybe they update their systems and we stick with them.