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Southwest cancellations continue as airline deals with ‘meltdown’ fallout

(CNN) — Anger over the tidal wave of cancellations of Southwest Airlines flights continued to mount Thursday. Senior officials demanded action as the company issued further apologies for the crisis which is now in its eighth day of stranding or delaying hundreds of thousands of passengers.

On a day when more than 2,300 Southwest flights were canceled across the United States, the airline’s chief commercial officer, Ryan Green, offered his regrets over the collapse of services, promising to rebuild customer relations that have sunk to rock bottom during the busy holiday travel period.

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

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

His remarks, which follow earlier apologies from airline CEO Bob Jordan, came as US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg made his own scathing assessment Southwest’s troubles, calling the situation a complete “meltdown.”

“You’ve got a company here that’s got a lot of cleaning up to do,” he said.

The company has previously warned that it could take days to clear the backlog of stranded people and lost luggage, but one of its unions offered a ray of hope, saying that things might be better by Friday.

However, Thursday promises to be more of the same, with Southwest departures accounting for 2,357 of a total of 2,448 flights canceled, according to flight tracking website FlightAware.

On top of all that, there’s increasing scrutiny of what led up to this meltdown, with operations at Denver International Airport under a microscope.

‘Operational emergency’ in Denver

Southwest’s decision to enact “operational emergency” staffing procedures last week at the airport in Denver as a massive winter storm bore down is now believed to have paid a significant part in creating the airline’s nationwide operational crisis.

Denver led the United States in cancellations on Wednesday and has been one of the nation’s biggest problem spots for several days.

The Southwest emergency staffing procedures in Denver included requiring a note from a doctor to verify illness after an employee calls out sick, a Southwest spokesperson told CNN Wednesday.

The spokesperson could not say whether the staffing policy remains in place or when the special rules ended.

The Washington Post cited a Southwest memo related to the operational emergency, dated December 21, in which the airline’s vice president for ground operations declared the condition was imposed because of an “unusually high number of absences” of Denver-based ramp employees, including sick calls and personal days for afternoon and evening shifts.

The operational emergency — experienced only at Denver, according to the company — is distinct from the issue the company says is to blame for the cascade of cancellations nationwide.

Denver International Airport has announced plans to conduct after-action reviews with the airport’s three major carriers — Frontier, Southwest and United — to learn from the disruptions while the situation is still fresh.

A ray of hope?

Meanwhile, an official for the union representing Southwest pilots said their flight schedules were expected to be almost back to normal by the end of the work week.

Mike Santoro, vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday that the union understands the airline is planning for a “mostly full schedule come Friday.”

“The weather, you know, was a big event that triggered it, although that’s no excuse for the lack of scheduling IT infrastructure which really caused the problem,” Santoro said.

As of 8 a.m. ET Thursday, Southwest had canceled only 39 flights for Friday, according to FlightAware.

The union official said Southwest’s scheduling infrastructure usually works well, but added this is not the first time they have seen a meltdown causing delays. “When you have these big weather events, it always seems to crash,” said Santoro.

Southwest spokesperson Chris Perry told CNN the airline is not experiencing an issue with employees not showing up for work.

“We have not had staffing issues at any station across our operation and commend our people for the valiant work they are doing,” Perry said.

Tough stats for Southwest this week

In all, Southwest has canceled about 15,700 flights since winter weather began disrupting air travel on December 22. (That figure includes the flights already canceled for Thursday.)

This is now a Southwest problem

Other US airlines flying in the same weather conditions have since recovered from the storm disruptions.

In fact, American Airlines and United Airlines have capped prices on some routes served by Southwest Airlines to make their flights more accessible to stranded passengers.

Southwest does not have interline agreements with other carriers that would allow its agents to rebook passengers on a different airline, leaving travelers in charge of exploring other options.

Buttigieg says he spoke directly to Southwest CEO Bob Jordan on Tuesday about the thousands of flights that have been canceled this week.

“Their system really has completely melted down,” Buttigieg told Blitzer. “I made clear that our department will be holding them accountable for their responsibilities to customers, both to get them through this situation and to make sure that this can’t happen again.”

Those responsibilities include providing meal vouchers and hotel accommodations for passengers whose flights were disrupted “as a result of Southwest’s decisions and actions,” a Department of Transportation (DOT) spokesperson said.

US airlines are also required to provide cash refunds to passengers whose flights were canceled and opted not to travel, the DOT said.

Buttigieg told CNN the Department of Transportation is prepared to pursue fines against Southwest if there is evidence that the company has failed to meet its legal obligations, but he added that the department will be taking a closer look at consistent customer service problems at the airline.

The secretary said he told CEO Jordan that he expects Southwest to proactively offer refunds and expense reimbursement to affected passengers without them having to ask.

What customers should do

One travel expert cautions to proceed carefully regarding refunds.

“Southwest says ‘We will honor reasonable requests for reimbursement for meals, hotel, and alternate transportation,’ ” points out Phil Dengler, co-founder of travel advice site The Vacationer.

“While Southwest is being vague on how much they will reimburse, I would avoid any expensive hotels or restaurants. Use Google Hotels to find nearby hotels near the airport where you are stranded.”

And he also cautions about piling up a big tab.

“Do a few Google searches such as ‘free things to do near me.’ I doubt Southwest is going to reimburse tours or other paid activities, so I would not book any expensive excursions that you cannot afford.”

What’s the hit to Southwest’s reputation?

“It is going to take a long time for Southwest Airlines to earn back public trust,” Dengler of The Vacationer said.

“While the extreme weather affected other airlines, Southwest experienced a true meltdown at the worst possible time. Many Americans have to decide on whether or not to wait it out or spend potentially thousands of dollars to get home that may or may not be fully reimbursed by Southwest.”

He noted that “some households did not even have the option to wait it out because one or multiple members had to return to work early this week. Unfortunately, that is going to be a hardship for many families, and the time lost is going to be significant in many cases.”

“A large portion of Americans only fly once per year, and they want a problem-free experience. I believe many people are going to pause when booking their next flight and they see Southwest Airlines as the cheapest option.”