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Southwest Airlines aims for 'return to normal' Friday after massive disruptions

A Southwest Airlines baggage specialist makes her way through hundreds of suitcases in the Southwest Airlines baggage claim area at St. Louis-Lambert International Airport in St. Louis on Tuesday. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI
1 of 5 | A Southwest Airlines baggage specialist makes her way through hundreds of suitcases in the Southwest Airlines baggage claim area at St. Louis-Lambert International Airport in St. Louis on Tuesday. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo

Dec. 29 (UPI) -- Southwest Airlines is seeking an end to the chaos that has gripped it for more than a week, pledging to "return to normal operations" on Friday.

The chaos continued into Thursday, with about 2,500 flights canceled by the airline. Southwest cancellations made up about 96% of all of Thursday's domestic cancellations. Friday's schedule looks much calmer, for now. Only about 1% of Southwest flights are canceled as of Thursday afternoon.

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"We are encouraged by the progress we've made to realign Crew, their schedules, and our fleet," Southwest said in an update Thursday.

"With another holiday weekend full of important connections for our valued Customers and Employees, we are eager to return to a state of normalcy. We know even our deepest apologies -- to our Customers, to our Employees, and to all affected through this disruption -- only go so far."

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Confusion throughout the airline has impacted airports, passengers and Southwest employees across the country. A computer system failure spiraled out of control starting late last week as the massive winter storm swept across the United States.

Pilots and flight attendants became lost in the system, not knowing where they needed to be or the airline not knowing where they have crew stationed.

More than 15,000 flights have been canceled, including about half of Thursday's flights. Passengers have been left stranded by the thousands, some without a notice of their flight being canceled.

One couple told the Washington Post that their Tuesday return trip from Atlanta to Philadelphia was canceled on Monday. They had paid more than $500 for roundtrip tickets. Because they had pets at home they were forced to pay another $1,200 one-way to fly with Delta.

Southwest has opened a portal for requesting a refund on flights canceled between Dec. 24 and Jan. 2. Also, travelers that experience flight disruptions through Monday may book a new flight within 30 days of their original travel date in the same class without additional charges.

The Southwest chaos has not been confined to the gate. Baggage claim carousels are inundated with piles of unclaimed luggage, leaving lines of people in the hundreds waiting to sift for their belongings," Axios reports.

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Airports in St. Louis, Dallas and Denver have been caught in the flood of checked bags, some arriving at the airport ahead of their owners. Some travelers at St. Louis Lambert International Airport were told to go home and wait for a phone call from Southwest to come back and claim their bags.

Airport security and law enforcement have been left to watch over unclaimed luggage, attempting to curtail a would-be free-for-all for bags.

The number of lost luggage is unknown, according to Southwest, but the evidence of the massive confusion can be seen on carousels across the country.

Several parties are performing reviews of what went wrong with Southwest over the last week. The Denver International Airport, seen as ground zero for the events to follow, is performing a review of how Frontier, Southwest and United airlines responded to the winter storm and ensuing flight cancellations. The review will take about two weeks.

On Tuesday, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN that Southwest will be held accountable for the angst it caused to its customers and employees.

"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.

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"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."

Buttigieg noted that while Southwest floundered, other airlines were able to recover quickly.

"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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