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Southwest Airlines resumes fairly normal flight schedule after week of chaos

Southwest Airlines returned to a relatively normal flight schedule Friday as the carrier sought to make amends with thousands of passengers whose holiday travel plans were upended after a winter storm last weekend.

The Dallas carrier, which had canceled thousands of flights every day this week, reported less than 50 cancellations as of early Friday afternoon, according to tracking service FlightAware. While that was still more than United, American and Delta combined, it marked significant progress following one of the most chaotic weeks in aviation history for a single airline.

Federal regulators have vowed a rigorous review of what happened at Southwest, with all eyes on outdated crew-scheduling technology that left flight crews out of place after the storm hit, essentially shutting down almost all of the carrier’s operations.

On Friday, however, Southwest passengers reported relatively empty flights, some with one person to a row, as the carrier reshuffled routes and sent planes, and crews, to where they needed to be.

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John and Rosaria Monte had been watching their Southwest flights closely this week as the airline struggled and their home city of Buffalo, New York, dug out for a deadly blizzard. They had no trouble Friday flying from Buffalo through Chicago to see their daughter and enjoy some warmer weather in Dallas for New Year’s.

“My husband kept checking it (the flight schedule) through the night and early this morning and everything went accordingly,” Rosaria said. “They were super friendly everywhere and not a problem.”

Don’t blame the weather

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in a letter to Southwest CEO Robert Jordan late Thursday called the week of disruptions “unacceptable.”

“While weather can disrupt flight schedules, the thousands of cancellations by Southwest in recent days have not been because of the weather,” Buttigieg wrote. “Other airlines that experienced weather-related cancellations and delays due to the winter storm recovered relatively quickly, unlike Southwest.”

Operational problems at Southwest also played a major role in the company’s mangled flight scheduled, according to U.S. Captain Michael Santoro, vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association. He pointed to what he described as the airline’s “outdated” scheduling technology, saying the software was unable to handle the flood of passenger flight cancellations caused by the winter storm. 

The system also failed to process the reassignments of Southwest crew as the company tried to reschedule flights, he added.

“You get this snowball effect where it can’t keep track of where pilots are, flight attendants are and airplanes are,” Santoro told CBS News.

“Extremely sorry”

At airports across the country passengers had what could be described as a typical holiday week for travel. It was a stark contrast near Southwest Airline counters, where hundreds of people sat on bags or slept where they could, with the Southwest aircraft sitting on the tarmac yards away, but crewless.

Southwest begun accepting reservations again Friday after getting crews and planes into place, and executives have started on what is undoubtedly a long road to regaining the trust of travelers.

Southwest’s Robert Jordan said in an interview with ABC’s Good Morning America on Friday that after safety, there is no greater focus than reimbursing customers and getting them reunited with their luggage.

“This has impacted so many people, so many customers, over the holidays. It’s impacted our employees. And I’m extremely sorry for that,” Jordan said. “There’s just no way almost to apologize enough because we love our customers, we love our people and we really impacted their plans.”

Southwest on Friday continued to deal with a barrage of grievances from frustrated passengers affected by the cancellations. “Unable to cancel online and overwhelmed phone line, hope I don’t miss out on refund. So disappointed,” one person said on Twitter. 

Yet others praised Southwest staff, with one thanking the airline’s “heroic employees and flight crews” for their efforts to get him to his destination on schedule. 

Executives with the airline said this week that it may be as much as a week to connect all Southwest passengers with their destinations.

Jordan warned that the meltdown this week will “certainly” hit the carrier when it reports fourth quarter financial results at the end of January. Company shares, which tumbled 8% this week, appeared to stabilize Friday.

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