Buttigieg vows to hold airlines accountable if Southwest flight cancellations continue

(CNN) — Passengers booked through Southwest Airlines this week will be days away from relief as the embattled airline continues to grapple with what U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has described as a complete breakdown of the system.

As of 5:30 a.m. ET, 2,743 flights within, into and out of the United States had been canceled on Wednesday, with 2,505 of them operated by Southwest Airlines, according to flight-tracking site FlightAware. Meanwhile, the website showed the airline had canceled another 2,348 flights on Thursday.

The airport most affected by Wednesday’s flight cancellations was Denver International, followed by Chicago Midway International, Baltimore/Washington International, Nashville International, Dallas Love Field, Las Vegas Harri Reid International and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

Buttigieg said he spoke directly with Southwest CEO Bob Jordan on Tuesday about the thousands of flights that were canceled this week, but gave no immediate indication of when passengers could be rebooked.

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

“I’ve made it clear that our department will hold them accountable to their customers, both to help them get through this and ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

Tuesday overview

CNN’s Carlos Suarez reports from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport that travelers are risking long lines and canceled flights after a winter storm sweeps through the United States.

More than 3,200 flights within, into and out of the United States were canceled on Tuesday, according to FlightAware.

Some 2,694 of those canceled flights were Southwest Airlines flights — 84% of all canceled flights in the United States.

Southwest Airlines ticket counters at multiple U.S. airports saw long lines of passengers trying to rebook or connect on Tuesday, while no one was around as passengers struggled to retrieve their bags at Chicago Midway International Airport, Las Hallirid International Airport and other airports. The piles of claimed luggage keep growing at the William P. Hobby airports in Vegas and Houston.

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

After her flight was cancelled, she stayed with relatives before being diverted to Atlanta for 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 and visit my family for Christmas,” Jones said. “It breaks my heart to see so many families sleeping on the floor.”

Buttigieg: ‘A lot of cleanup to do’

The canceled Southwest Airlines flight was displayed on an information board at Oakland, Calif., International Airport on Tuesday.

The canceled Southwest Airlines flight was displayed on an information board at Oakland, Calif., International Airport on Tuesday.

Bloomberg/Bloomberg/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Southwest blamed several factors for the travel disaster, including winter storm delays, aggressive flight schedules and outdated infrastructure.

“As far as I know, Southwest Airlines can’t even locate where their own crew members are, let alone their own passengers, let alone luggage,” Buttigieg said, adding that he also spoke with representatives of flight attendants and pilots. Airline union leaders spoke.

The secretary said he told CEO Jordan that he hoped Southwest would proactively offer refunds and reimbursement of expenses to affected passengers without them asking.

“I communicated to the CEO our expectation that they will do everything in their power to take care of passengers and address this issue,” he said.

Buttigieg told CNN that the Department of Transportation is prepared to fine Southwest if there is evidence the company failed to meet its legal obligations, but added that the department will take a closer look at the airline’s consistent customer service issues.

“While every other part of the airline system is moving in the direction of recovery and getting better every day, the airline has actually been moving in the opposite direction,” Buttigieg said.

“There’s a company here that needs to do a lot of cleaning up,” he said.

Southwest Airlines CEO issues video apology

Jordan apologized to passengers and employees in a video statement released by the company Tuesday night.

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

While Jordan acknowledged problems with the company’s response, the statement suggested he didn’t foresee major changes to Southwest’s procedures due to the mass cancellation.

“The tools we use to recover from outages serve us well 99% of the time, but obviously we need to double down on our existing plans to upgrade systems for these edge cases so we never Face what’s happening now, Jordan said.

“We are optimistic about getting back on track by next week.”

Is there anything passengers can do?

Katy Nastro, a spokesperson for Scott’s Cheap Flights, shares her advice on what to do if your flight is delayed or canceled.

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

So what should customers do?

“First and foremost, travelers who are still waiting on Southwest and need to get somewhere should try to book a flight on another airline as soon as possible … now, really,” said Kyle Porter, executive editor of travel advisories. website Thrifty Traveler, in an email to CNN Travel late Tuesday afternoon.

“Every airline in the country is overcrowded right now, so your odds of finding a seat — let alone at halfway prices — are getting smaller every hour,” Porter said.

“Travellers who are in the middle of it should make sure they keep all their receipts: other flights, car rentals, hotel stays, meals, whatever,” Porter said.

If you’re stuck and efforts to contact a customer service agent are going nowhere, the founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights recommends trying an international number.

“American Airlines’ main hotline will be clogged with other passengers rebooking. To get through to an agent quickly, call any of the airline’s dozens of international offices,” Scott Keyes said.

“Agents can process your reservations just like US agents, but with virtually no wait to get through.”

Click here for Southwest Airlines previously issued international numbers.

Southwest Airlines: “Keep Your Receipt”

After their flight was cancelled, 13 strangers decided to rent a van and drive all the way from Orlando to Knoxville, Tennessee.

Southwest Airlines spokesman Jay McVeigh said at a news conference Monday night at Houston’s William P. Vans…rentals try and make sure these people get home as quickly as possible.”

All customers, even those who have left the airport or made other arrangements of their own, will be taken care of, he promised.

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

What went wrong from the pilot’s point of view

Passengers searched for luggage at the Hollywood Burbank Airport in California on Tuesday.

Passengers searched for luggage at the Hollywood Burbank Airport in California on Tuesday.

Robin Baker/AFP/Getty Images

The captain, vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said in an interview with CNN on Tuesday. Mike Santoro said the problems facing Southwest were the worst disruption he had experienced at the airline in 16 years.

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

“What went wrong was that our IT infrastructure for scheduling software was definitely outdated,” he said. “It can’t handle the number of pilots and cabin crew in our system, our complex network of airlines.

“We don’t have normal hubs like the other major airlines. We fly a peer-to-peer network, which can allow our crew to be in the wrong place without an aircraft.”

He added: “It’s frustrating for the pilots, the flight attendants, and especially our passengers. We’re tired of apologizing for Southwest, the airline’s pilots, and our hearts go out to all the passengers, they really did. “

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

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