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Cautious travelers return to Oakland and San Jose airports after Southwest meltdown

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Southwest planes took off from rain-soaked runways on Friday, luggage moved freely through baggage carousels and thousands of passengers once again crowded the gates of Bay Area airports.

On any other day, this would have been a routine scene with the airline’s major hubs in Oakland and San Jose. But after last week’s colossal airline meltdown, travelers wary at the end of the most chaotic holiday travel season in decades were wondering: Are things really back to normal?

“Everyone is checking their phones every 20 minutes,” said LaDonna Parham, a professional mentor who spent a night stuck “cold and hungry” at the Denver airport after a Southwest cancellation. On Friday, she cautiously flew from Oakland back to Austin, Texas, making sure to book a nonstop flight and only take a carry-on bag. “If it’s not a direct flight, I won’t go.”

Southwest had promised that by Friday it would restore its flight schedule with “minimal disruptions”. And by late morning, the airline appeared to have successfully pressed the reset button, achieving a remarkable turnaround, cutting more than 15,000 flights in recent days to operating at full throttle with more than 4,200 flights. Oakland International saw zero flights canceled on Friday afternoon, and Mineta San Jose International saw just three, about 1% of Southwest’s traffic.

Days earlier, the electronic boards that cataloged arrivals and departures were filled with anxiety-inducing red boxes marking canceled flights and countless altered vacation plans. On Friday, the billboards in Oakland were a calm sea of ​​green, noting the punctual arrival of planes from Chicago, Phoenix and San Antonio.

For passengers like Barry and Sheila Gibert of Yorba Linda, airport chaos gave way to smooth sailing. “It was great, it was perfect,” said Sheila, who arrived in San Jose from Orange County. “The flight was a third full. Absolutely wonderful. It could not have been better.”

Yorba Linda's Sheila Gibert, left, and her husband, Barry, talk during an interview at Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport on Dec. 30, 2022. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
Yorba Linda’s Sheila Gibert, left, and her husband, Barry, talk during an interview at Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport on Dec. 30, 2022. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

In his first interview since the biggest operational disaster in Southwest’s history, CEO Bob Jordan said the airline is “off to a good start today.”

“Other than safety, there’s no greater focus at this time than taking care of our customers, getting them together with their bags, getting refunds processed,” Jordan said on ABC’s Good Morning America. He promised the airline would work to avoid a future collapse and dodged questions about whether to step down.

Jamie Green, 52, greeted the situation at the Oakland airport with a mixture of relief and trepidation.

“God have mercy,” Green said as he checked in for a flight to Las Vegas. Green also constantly checked his phone for signs of delays, which had yet to show up. “The queue is not huge and I feel hopeful.”

The damage to the airline prompted a federal investigation and mounting pressure to hold Southwest’s leadership accountable. A severe winter storm sent the entire industry into a tailspin starting the Thursday before Christmas, but Southwest’s woes snowballed as competing airlines recovered from weather delays. As of Monday, Southwest canceled nearly 3,000 flights, while Frontier canceled just 48 planes.

Air travel experts say Southwest’s failure to update its decades-old scheduling software has catalyzed mass cancellations that have left customers stranded across the country. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said his agency is ready to slap Southwest with hefty fines if they “fail to do what is required of them to take care of passengers.”

While Friday saw Southwest’s return to operations, the fiasco deeply tarnished the reputation of Golden State’s “unofficial airline.” The episode could cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars, and Southwest faces swarms of loyal customers who are now questioning their devotion to the operator.

Travelers, who traveled on a Southwest flight out of Dallas, wait for their luggage at baggage claim at Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport on Dec. 30, 2022. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
Travelers, who traveled on a Southwest flight out of Dallas, wait for their luggage at baggage claim at Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport on Dec. 30, 2022. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

“I used to be dogged at Southwest at all costs,” said Heath Lehman, a Southwest frequent flyer. “It won’t be like that anymore.”

Lehman and his son Ethan were trying to salvage their long-awaited Hawaiian vacation. After seeing customers break down in tears at an Arkansas airport over Christmas, they booked a $600 rental car for Dallas, and after spending a “full human day” on hold, the two were on the home stretch. They could almost taste the Mai Tais and feel the sand between their toes, but first they had a six-hour layover in rainy Oakland.

“We are praying,” Lehman said.

But many passengers said they were willing to give the airline a second chance, citing years of good service. “I like Southwest because in the past they’ve fixed things,” said Hope Vailancourt, who had to pay for an unintentional stay at a San Jose hotel for a few nights with her husband, Scott. “I am confident they will. They are a good airline so hopefully things work out.”

Scott Vailancourt of Austin, Texas, left, and his wife, Hope, talk during an interview at Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport on Dec. 30, 2022. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
Scott Vailancourt of Austin, Texas, left, and his wife, Hope, talk during an interview at Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport on Dec. 30, 2022. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

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