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Southwest Airlines CEO apologizes as carrier cancels more flights Thursday

Southwest Airlines has apologized for canceling thousands of flights, including 60% of its flights Wednesday and another 60% Thursday, File Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI
1 of 6 | Southwest Airlines has apologized for canceling thousands of flights, including 60% of its flights Wednesday and another 60% Thursday, File Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo

Dec. 28 (UPI) -- Southwest Airlines has apologized for canceling thousands of flights, including 60% of its flights Wednesday and another 60% Thursday, as the airline works to recover from an operations meltdown following last week's winter storm over the busy holiday weekend.

On Wednesday, Southwest accounted for about 90% of all grounded flights in the United States and will account for a large percent of cancellations Thursday, nearly 5,000 in all, according to data from flight tracking service FlightAware. Other airlines appear to have recovered from the storm.

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More than 15,700 Southwest flights have been canceled since the winter weather started to disrupt travel Dec. 22. Southwest Airlines' chief executive officer responded to the backlash with an apology.

"I want everyone who is dealing with the problems we've been facing, whether you haven't been able to get to where you need to go or you're one of our heroic employees caught up in a massive effort to stabilize the airline, to know that we are doing everything we can to return to a normal operation," Bob Jordan said.

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"And please also hear that I am truly sorry."

Southwest Airlines has struggled to recover from a series of holiday storms and staffing shortages over the Christmas holidays that has left one of America's most relied-upon airlines to cancel up to 70% of its flights over multiple days.

That has created ripple effects throughout the industry as thousands of passengers either remain stranded in an effort to get home or having their vacation plans postponed or nixed altogether.

"Our network is highly complex and the operation of the airline counts on all the pieces, especially aircraft and crews remaining in motion to where they're planned to go," Jordan said

"With our large fleet of airplanes and flight crews out of position in dozens of locations, and after days of trying to operate as much of our full schedule across the busy holiday weekend, we reached a decision point to significantly reduce our flying to catch up," Jordan added.

An internal memo, one day before the winter storm, discussed a worker shortage in Denver, which was hit hard by the storm and where Southwest has significant operations.

Southwest's vice president for ground operations, Chris Johnson, declared a "state of operational emergency" because of an "unusually high number of absences" of Denver-based ramp employees, according to the Dec. 21 memo, which was obtained by The Washington Post.

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The memo also warned that employees "alleging illness" would be required to provide a doctor's note for calling in sick or risk being fired. According to Johnson, Southwest warned workers that any personal days off would be denied during the state of emergency.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Southwest Airlines will be held accountable for the treatment of passengers and staff during its holiday season meltdown.

Buttigieg said on CNN that other airlines have not experienced the same troubles as Southwest, calling the airlines' situation "unacceptable."

"From what I can tell, Southwest is unable to locate even where their own crews are, let alone their own passengers, let alone baggage," Buttigieg said.

"The CEO pledged to me that they will not only meet but they will exceed the customer service standards and commitments that they have made to us in the past. And that we're in a position to enforce."

"I also talked with union leadership from the pilots and from the flight attendants," Buttigieg said. "They made clear that they have been raising the alarm about these issues in their systems for some time.

"What's really concerning here is while all the other parts of the aviation system have been moving toward recovery and getting better each day, it's actually been moving the opposite direction with this airline."

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Compared to other U.S.-based airlines Wednesday, according to FlightAware, Spirit Airlines canceled 4% of its flights and JetBlue 2% while American, Delta and United had no planned cancelations.

"We're focused on safely getting all of the pieces back into position to end this rolling struggle," Jordan said in a statement Tuesday. "I have nothing but pride and respect for the efforts of the people of Southwest who are showing up in every way.

"The tools we use to recover from disruption serve us well, 99% of the time; but clearly, we need to double down on our already existing plans to upgrade systems for these extreme circumstances so that we never again face what's happening right now."

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