Days after severe winter weather wiped out air travel plans across the country, Southwest Airlines customers are still struggling with heavy cancellations.
“This has clearly crossed the line from what's an uncontrollable weather situation to something that is the airline's direct responsibility,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt.
More than 2,500 Southwest flights are canceled Wednesday, after roughly 5,600 cancellations across Monday and Tuesday, according to FlightAware, which tracks flight status in real time. FlightAware is already reporting more than 2,300 Southwest cancellations for Thursday.
“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,” Southwest CEO Bob Jordan said in a video Tuesday, in which he also apologized. "We're focused on safely getting all of the pieces back into position to end this rolling struggle."
Here's what Southwest customers should know.
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What happens if Southwest cancels my flight?
Customers whose flights are canceled may rebook or request a refund for their flights.
Additionally, all Southwest customers who were scheduled to fly through Jan. 2, 2023 may rebook without paying additional charges or fly standby within 14 days of their original travel date between previously booked cities.
Flights may be rebooked on Southwest's website or by phone at 1-800-I-FLY-SWA. Customers who call should expect long wait times.
Is there any way to get refunds on Southwest?
Customers whose flights were canceled may fill out a form on Southwest's website to request a refund, if they choose not to rebook.
The Department of Transportation requires all airlines to offer refunds when a flight is canceled for any reason. Rules about delays are more complicated and vary widely. The DOT's dashboard for travelers lists policies by airline.
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Can I be reimbursed for extra expenses?
Southwest customers impacted by cancellations or a "significant flight delay" between Dec. 24 and Jan. 2 may submit receipts by email for reimbursement consideration.
"We will honor reasonable requests for reimbursement for meals, hotel, and alternate transportation," the airline said on its website.
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Where is my luggage?
Unclaimed bags, belonging to Southwest customers who didn't make it as far as their checked luggage, have piled up at airports across the country. “We’re working to resolve the situation as quickly as possible,” the airline said on its website.
An airline spokesperson told USA TODAY a webpage will soon launch to help reunite customers with their bags.
Why is Southwest Airlines canceling flights?
Southwest said it was "fully staffed and prepared" heading into the holiday weekend, but severe weather forced operational changes that they've struggled to recover from.
After meeting with Southwest's leadership about the cancellations, Buttigieg told CNN's Situation Room, "They indicated a number of issues that they're having with systems, legacy systems for managing their schedule and where their crews are."
"Due to the magnitude and scale of the disruptions, our technology could not align our resources," Southwest Airlines told USA TODAY. "As a result, our crew schedulers are tackling the issue manually and that is a tedious, long process that takes time and trained resources to accomplish."
Southwest's CEO expressed hope "to be back on track before next week." Jordan noted that the airline's tools work 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."
Randy Barnes, president of Transport Workers Union Local 555, which represents Southwest ground crews, cast additional blame. "If airline managers had planned better, the meltdown we’ve witnessed in recent days could have been lessened or averted," Barnes said in a statement.
How many flights did Southwest cancel?
Southwest has canceled more than 10,000 flights between Monday through Thursday, according to FlightAware.
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What is Southwest doing about cancellations?
Southwest is reaching out to impacted travelers and asking other customers, who aren't scheduled to fly within the next 72 hours, to delay calling to avoid tying up busy phone lines. The airline is also apologizing for "falling short," saying "our heartfelt apologies for this are just beginning."
"We always take care of our customers," Southwest's CEO said. "And we will lean in and go above and beyond as they would expect us to. Teams are working on all of that: processing refunds, proactively reaching out and taking care of customers who are dealing with costly detours and reroutes, as just a few examples."
Some lawmakers want to more. In a joint statement, Senators Edward Markey, D-Mass, and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn, called for "not only rebooked tickets, ticket refunds, and hotel, meal, and transportation reimbursement, but significant monetary compensation for the disruption to their holiday plans.”
What is the government doing about Southwest's 'meltdown'?
Both the Department of Transportation and Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation are looking into the cancellations. President Joe Biden said his administration will hold airlines accountable.
"What we did, especially over the course of the problems we saw this year, was press the airlines to increase their customer service commitments. They did that. They did that in writing, and now that we have that in hand, we are able to hold them accountable to a higher standard than what was possible last year," Buttigieg told NBC.
Contributing: Rebecca Morin, Kathleen Wong, USA TODAY