More Mass Cancellations as Southwest Struggles to Untangle Travel Meltdown

Southwest Airlines, caught in a vexing tangle of misplaced staff and technical problems since last week’s winter storm, was still not free of its ongoing debacle on Thursday, with more than 2,300 of its daily flights canceled.

The cancellations, which made up 58 percent of the airline’s scheduled flights on Thursday, came several days after other airlines had recovered from the storm. The operational and public relations crisis has stranded thousands of travelers, bewildered employees and put company officials on the defensive, hoping to stave off long-term damage to Southwest’s reputation.

Ryan Green, Southwest’s chief commercial officer, said in a video statement late Wednesday that the airline was making “a pledge to do everything we can and to work day and night to repair our relationship with you.”

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

The meltdown was sparked by a severe winter storm that disrupted every airline in the busy travel days before Christmas. But Southwest relies on a different organizational structure than most other airlines that makes it harder to recover from disruptions, and had technical problems in its intricate scheduling system. (Read more about why and how the chaos unfolded.)

In an interview on “Good Morning America” on Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said of Southwest, “We are past the point where they could say that this is a weather-driven issue.”

He added: “What this indicates is a system failure, and they need to make sure that these stranded passengers get to where they need to go and that they are provided adequate compensation.”

As officials scrambled to restore normal operations, customers remained far from home and frustrated by the lack of progress or ability to contact customer service for help. Some had to spend more than $1,000 for tickets on other airlines, or to secure rental cars for cross-country road trips. Barclay Cunningham, 51, said she had to borrow a car from her father for a 14-hour drive from St. Louis to Philadelphia, and wasn’t sure yet how she’d get it back to him.

For Elise Benitez and her husband, getting home for Christmas was blocked by a relentless series of missteps.

After they arrived at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Dec. 24 to fly home to Orlando, they learned their flight had been canceled because of staffing shortages. They were rebooked for a flight leaving from Baltimore, about an hour’s drive away, for the following morning, Christmas Day.

When they arrived at the Baltimore airport, the flight was postponed repeatedly. After eight hours of delays, it was canceled.

“We spent all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at the airport,” said Ms. Benitez, 57, who works as a real estate agent. “What a nightmare.”

The couple received vouchers from Southwest to stay at a hotel that night, and booked a rental car online from the Baltimore airport that they planned to drive back to Orlando. But when they went to pick up the rental car, it wasn’t available. Eventually, Ms. Benitez’s brother, who they had been visiting in Virginia, found them a rental car there, picked them up from Baltimore and dropped them off at the rental agency in Virginia.

Ms. Benitez and her husband drove 12 hours back to Orlando and arrived back home on Tuesday, finally opening their Christmas presents, she said. Southwest “did give us vouchers, but that can’t compensate you for the loss of your time or the joy or the Christmas spirit,” she said.

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