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Southwest Airlines CEO: 'I Can't Apologize Enough'

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(CNN) – The head of Southwest Airlines has vowed to “compensate” passengers hit by his company’s disastrous holiday meltdown, as the carrier pledged to resume normal service on Friday.

“It impacted so many people – so many customers – during the holidays,” CEO Bob Jordan said in an interview on ABC’s Good Morning America. “I’m sorry about that. There’s just not nearly enough to apologize for.”

Jordan said passenger reimbursements would cover traveler costs, including “car rentals, hotel rooms, meals, customer reservations on other airlines – all of that will be part of what we’re covering.”

“We’re offering refunds, covering expenses – we’ll be back with even more after that,” he said. “Beyond security, there is no greater focus at this time than looking after our customers, gathering them with their bags and processing refunds.”

The airline’s struggles began with the huge, icy winter storm, but have persisted—even worsened—in Southwest as other major airlines have recovered. Nearly 15,800 Southwest flights have been canceled since Dec. 22 in a disruption that has rocked the company.

“This was just an unprecedented storm for everybody – for every airline,” said Jordan. “The storm had an impact, but we’ve had impacts beyond the storm that obviously impacted Southwest very differently.”

Jordan said the airline will run its full schedule of about 3,900 flights on Friday. Flight tracking website FlightAware shows that Southwest canceled 40 flights at 8am ET, or about 1% of its schedule.

“I’m very confident that we’re going to have a really tight operation today,” he said.

If these planes fly again and the piles of luggage piled up are reduced, it will certainly be a relief for passengers – and for the company. It has a mark on the back.

Senior US government officials are baffled, to say the least, about how Southwest got to this point after a severe winter storm that every other major US airline had under control days ago.

And they’re demanding that Southwest fix things — or face financial repercussions.

What Southwest Said About Today

In a statement released on Thursday – after another busy day in which an additional 2,362 flights were canceled – Southwest said it expected minimal disruptions over the New Year weekend.

“We are encouraged by the progress we have made in realigning the crew, their schedules and our fleet,” he said. “We know that even our deepest apologies – to our customers, employees and everyone affected by this disruption – go that far,” the statement reads.

“We’ve created a page at Southwest.com/traveldisruption for customers to submit refund and refund requests for meals, hotel and alternative transportation; as well as to connect customers to their bags.”

However, that still doesn’t assuage questions about how the airline’s systems could allow things to go so wrong and demand that they not happen again. And the Department of Transportation (DOT) still takes a firm line with Southwest.

DOT for Southwest: Do Right by Passengers

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg wrote in a letter to Southwest CEO Jordan that officials will take action against the airline if it fails to deliver on promises to reimburse passengers for alternative transportation costs, as well as provide meals, hotels , refunds and reunification of luggage.

Penalties include the possibility of imposing fines.

“It would be an unfair and misleading practice not to honor this commitment to passengers,” Buttigieg wrote, referring specifically to alternative travel reimbursements.

“The Department will use the full extent of its investigative and enforcement powers to hold Southwest accountable if it fails to honor promises made to reimburse passengers for costs incurred with alternative transportation.”

These fines can be substantial.

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

Regrets and Repairs

A traveler goes through baggage at baggage claim inside the Southwest Airlines terminal at St.  Louis Lambert on Wednesday.

A traveler goes through baggage at baggage claim inside the Southwest Airlines terminal at St. Louis Lambert on Wednesday.

Jeff Roberson/AP

The airline’s chief commercial officer, Ryan Green, on Thursday lamented the collapse of services, vowing to rebuild relationships with customers who have hit rock bottom.

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

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

His remarks came as Buttigieg delivered his own scathing assessment of Southwest’s problems, calling the situation a complete “collapse”.

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

Some understanding passengers

Some passengers were taking it all in stride and showed some sympathy for Southwest.

Several people at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport spoke with CNN’s Nick Valencia on Thursday about their experiences traveling with Southwest this holiday season.

“I mean, it’s just part of the course. This is air travel, everyone is trying to get everywhere at once. Unfortunately, Southwest has taken the brunt of this year’s unfortunate travel situation,” Roderic Hister told CNN. .

When asked what he thought about the lack of lines at Southwest counters at the airport, Hister said, “Maybe it speaks to the improvements they’re trying to make, because there aren’t long lines, people aren’t here complaining. So maybe you know , efforts to redeem themselves are working.”

Winston Williams, close to Hister, said he still intends to use the airline in the future. “I like Southwest. I mean, bags are free,” Williams said.

People want to know: what caused it?

Ask Southwest Airline employees about their company’s technology. You won’t get many compliments.

Although Southwest has grown from a Texas-based low-cost airline operating three planes to one of the nation’s largest, union representatives representing Southwest workers say the company has not kept up with technological changes. And they say they have been raising concerns for years.

“We’ve been insisting on them since 2015 every year,” Mike Santoro, captain and vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, told CNN.

They and the airline itself described an internal process that requires various departments to manually redraw the airline’s schedule — a system that works “the vast majority of the time,” the airline said in a statement.

When something goes wrong, Southwest’s software – including the crew scheduling system tool – leaves much of the work of rebuilding this delicate network to be done manually.

damaged reputation

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

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

Phil Dengler, co-founder of travel tip site The Vacationer, agrees.

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

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

“While low prices are attractive, this collapse will have many travelers exploring other low-cost options.”

What Customers Should Do

Dengler cautions to tread carefully with these promised repayments.

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

And he also warns against racking up a big account.

“Do some Google searches like ‘free things to do near me.’ I doubt Southwest refunds tours or other paid activities, so I wouldn’t book any expensive tours you can’t afford.”

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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