By Emma Bowman and Jennifer Ludden, NPR
Southwest Airlines said it expects to return close to a normal flight schedule Friday after the carrier was forced to cancel thousands of flights during the busy Christmas travel season, in a meltdown aggravated by a winter storm and the company's outdated technology.
Hundreds of thousands of travelers continued to bear the brunt of the airline's challenges on Thursday, with Southwest again canceling over half of its flights.
Ahead of the New Year's weekend, Southwest now says a recovery is in sight.
"We are encouraged by the progress we've made to realign Crew, their schedules, and our fleet," the company said in a statement. "With another holiday weekend full of important connections for our valued Customers and Employees, we are eager to return to a state of normalcy."
The severe weather has exacerbated staff shortages caused by the "tripledemic" that's left employees sickened with COVID-19, the flu and RSV.
But it was a breakdown of the airline's old computer system used for crew scheduling that has turned otherwise challenging weather-fueled disruptions into what experts have called an "unprecedented" airline meltdown.
Stuck in Denver for days with no luggage
Like so many, April Proveaux and her family of five were stuck in Denver for four days with no luggage.
"We were told that night that our bags had already flown to Memphis," she said. "Which didn't make sense to us because no flights had taken off."
It was a frigid minus 3 degrees in Denver, but the family had packed their winter coats and had only the warm-weather clothes they'd put on that morning in California. When they finally got back home to Memphis and stood in line with dozens of others to check on their luggage, it turned out their bags had been in Denver the whole time.
Given all the chaos she's witnessed this week, Proveaux figured she'd never see her bags again. But on Wednesday night, to her shock, the luggage was delivered to her door.
In an apology statement late Wednesday — and again on a media briefing call on Thursday — Southwest said passengers can apply online for baggage returns, flight refunds and travel expenses from this week's disruption.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says Southwest has agreed to honor "reasonable" requests for reimbursement for passengers who faced delays between Dec. 24 and Jan. 2. But the Proveaux family flight was canceled on Dec. 23.
"If Southwest fails to cover these costs, let us know and we will investigate and enforce," Buttigieg said Thursday. "Anyone facing denied or delayed compensation can file a complaint with us and we'll follow up."
Still, Proveaux remains skeptical about getting back the $1,500 she says her family spent while stranded.
By Thursday afternoon, there were still few signs of relief: More than 2,300 Southwest flights had been canceled, according to airline tracker FlightAware. In comparison, Frontier, which had the second-most cancellations by a U.S. airline at that time, had 19 flights drop off its schedule.
Both the Biden administration and Congress say they will investigate what went wrong at Southwest.
The company has faced criticism for its outdated scheduling software and communications systems, and the impact that has — not just on passengers but also its employees.
Chaotic scheduling and mandatory overtime
Former Southwest operations agent Hally Chauvin says she quit the company three months ago because of chaotic scheduling and mandatory overtime.
"I was working 20-hour shifts all the time, just from them extending my shifts," she says.
Chauvin recalls a time, while helping to board a flight, that she was told to locate a pilot who was on the plane as a passenger.
"I had to pull him off my plane, when he was trying to go home to see his family, so he could go work another flight just because he was at the airport," she says.
Chauvin was among those caught up in this week's cancellations and says she was not surprised by the meltdown given her experience at the company.
Randy Barnes, president of the Transport Workers Union's Local 555, which represents Southwest employees, said in a statement Wednesday that many Southwest ground workers had to work 16- or 18-hour shifts during the holiday season and were getting sick and experiencing frostbite.
"The airline needs to do more to protect its ground crews," he said.
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