Southwest Airlines CEO: There’s no way to apologize

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

“It affected a lot of people — a lot of customers — over the holidays,” CEO Bob Jordan said in an interview with ABC’s Good Morning America. “I am very sorry for that. There is no way to apologize.”

“Rental cars, hotel rooms, meals, booking customers on other airlines — all of that will be part of what we cover,” Jordan said, adding that reimbursements to travelers will cover the costs of travelers.

“We get the money back, cover the costs — and then we go out more,” he said. “Beyond safety, there’s no greater focus at this point than taking care of our customers, reuniting them with their bags, and getting refunds.”

The airline’s difficulties began with a massive, cold winter storm, but lingered — and worsened — as Southwest’s other major airlines recovered. Nearly 15,800 Southwest flights have been canceled since Dec. 22, shaking the company to its core.

“This is an unprecedented storm for everyone — for all airlines,” Jordan said. “The storm had an impact, but we had impacts beyond the storm that hit the Southwest very differently.”

Jordan Airlines said on Friday it would fly about 3,900 flights in its full schedule. Flight tracking platform FlightAware Southwest has canceled 40 flights by 8 a.m. ET, or 1% of its schedule, it said.

“I’m sure we’ll have a very tight operation today,” he said.

If those planes are back in the air and the stacked luggage is reduced, it will surely be a relief for the passengers — and the company. It has a mark on its back.

Top U.S. government officials are unhappy about how the Southwest has gotten to this point after a massive winter storm that was brought under control just days ago.

They are demanding that Southwest make things right — or face financial consequences.

Southwest said about today

In a statement released Thursday — following another bruising day with another 2,362 flight cancellations — Southwest said it hoped there would be minimal disruption over the New Year’s weekend.

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“We are encouraged by the teams, their schedules and the progress we have made in realigning our fleet,” it said. “We also know our deepest apologies to our customers, our employees and everyone affected by this disruption,” the statement said.

“We set up a page Southwest.com/traveldisruption Customers must submit refund and reimbursement requests for meals, hotels and alternative transportation; And connect customers with their goods.”

However, it still doesn’t address questions about how the plane’s systems allowed things to go wrong and demand they never happen again. And the Department of Transportation (DOT) is still taking a firm stand with Southwest.

DOT for Southwest: Make a right by Passenger

In a letter to Southwest CEO Jordan, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg wrote that the airline would face action if officials did not follow through on promises to reimburse passengers for alternative transportation costs, provide meals, hotels, refunds and regroup baggage.

Penalties include the ability to impose fines.

“Failure to honor this commitment to passengers is an unfair and deceptive practice,” Buttigieg wrote, specifically referring to alternative travel reimbursements.

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

Those penalties can be substantial.

“The airline told me they were going to go above and beyond what they needed,” Buttigieg told NBC News on Thursday. “I’m looking to make sure they’re actually doing that, and if they’re not, we’re in a position to fine tens of thousands of dollars per passenger per violation.”

Regret and repair

A passenger checks luggage in the baggage claim area inside the Southwest Airlines terminal at St. Louis Lambert International Airport on Wednesday.

Jeff Roberson/AP

The airline’s chief commercial officer, Ryan Green, lamented the decline in its services on Thursday.

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

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“We’re continuing to work to fix this, and you’ll be hearing more about it soon. But for now, we’re focused on restoring reliability and the level of customer experience you’ve come to expect from us.”

Buttigieg’s comments came as he made his own grim assessment of Southwest’s problems, calling the situation a complete “meltdown.”

“You have a company here that needs a lot of cleaning,” he said.

Some understanding passengers

Some passengers took it all for granted and showed some sympathy for Southwest.

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

“I mean, it’s par for the course. It’s air travel, and everybody’s trying to get everywhere at once. Unfortunately, Southwest took the brunt of this year’s unfortunate travel situation,” Roderick Hister told CNN.

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

Winston Williams, standing next to Hester, said he would like to use the airline more in the future. “I like Southwest. I mean, the bags are free,” Williams said.

People need to know: What is causing this?

Ask Southwest Airlines employees about their company’s technology. You won’t get many obsessions.

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

Mike Santoro, captain and vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, told CNN, “Every year since 2015, we’ve been criticizing them.

They and the airline described an internal process that required multiple departments to manually remap flight schedules — a system that works “most of the time,” the airline said in a statement.

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If something goes wrong, Southwest’s software — including the group scheduling system tool — must do most of the work of rebuilding that delicate network manually.

Reputation is tarnished

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

He added to CNN that “it’s a perfect storm with all the things that are going on with the company. It’s going to take them a very long time to rebuild trust with consumers.”

Phil Dengler is the co-founder of the travel advice website A vacationerAgreed.

“It will take a long time for Southwest Airlines to regain public confidence. While extreme weather has affected other airlines, Southwest hit a real snag at the worst possible time,” he said Thursday in an email to CNN Travel.

“Most Americans only fly once a year, and they want a hassle-free experience. I’m sure many will pause when booking their next flight, and they’ll look at Southwest Airlines as a cheaper option,” Dengler said.

“While lower fares are enticing, this meltdown will lead many travelers to explore other lower-cost options.”

What customers should do

Dengler cautions to proceed with caution regarding these promised refunds.

Southwest says, ‘We will honor reasonable requests for reimbursement for meals, hotel and alternative transportation,” he said. “When Southwest is unclear on how much they will reimburse, I avoid expensive hotels or restaurants. Use Google Hotels to find hotels near your stranded airport.”

And he also warns against accumulating a large tab.

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

CNN’s Andy Rose, Andy Babineau, Adrian Broadus, Dave Alsop, Nick Valencia, Devon Sayers, David Goldman, Leslie Perot, Carlos Suarez, Carla Cripps and Ross Levitt contributed to this story.

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