Southwest planes took off from rain-soaked tarmacs on Friday, luggage moved freely around baggage carousels and thousands of passengers once again crowded the gates of Bay Area airports.
On any other day, this would be a common scene with the airline’s major hubs in Oakland and San Jose. But after last week’s major airline collapse, at the end of the most chaotic holiday travel season in decades, cautious travelers are wondering: Are things really back to normal?
“Everybody’s checking their phones every 20 minutes,” said LaDonna Parham, a professional mentor who spent the night “cold and hungry” stranded at the Denver airport after Southwest’s cancellation. On Friday, she cautiously flew home from Oakland to Austin, Texas, having to book a nonstop flight and carrying only a carry-on bag. “If it’s not a direct flight, I won’t go.”
Southwest has promised to resume its flight schedule by Friday with “minimum disruptions.” By late morning, the airline had successfully hit the reset button, achieving a remarkable turnaround from cutting more than 15,000 flights to operating at full steam with more than 4,200 flights in recent days. Oakland International saw zero canceled flights Friday afternoon, and Mineta San Jose International saw only three, about 1% of Southwest’s traffic.
A few days ago, electronic boards cataloging arrivals and departures were littered with alarming red boxes marking canceled flights and countless extended vacation plans. The signs in Oakland on Friday were a soothing sea of green, marking the on-time arrival of planes from Chicago, Phoenix and San Antonio.
For passengers like Barry and Sheila Gibert of Yorba Linda, airport chaos has given way to smooth sailing. “It was great, it was perfect,” said Sheila, who came to San Jose from Orange County. “One third of the flight was full. Absolutely beautiful. It couldn’t be more beautiful.”
In his first interview since the biggest operational failure in Southwest’s history, CEO Bob Jordan said the airline was “off to a great start today.”
“Other than safety, there’s no greater focus at this point than taking care of our customers, getting them back with their bags and getting their money back,” Jordan said on ABC’s Good Morning America. He vowed the airline would work to prevent a further collapse and dodged questions about whether he should resign.
Jamie Green, 52, greeted the situation at Auckland Airport with a mixture of relief and hesitation.
“God bless you,” Green said as he checked in to fly to Las Vegas. Green, too, was constantly checking his phone for signs of a delay that hadn’t yet appeared. “The line is not big and I feel hopeful.”
The airline debacle led to a federal investigation and mounting pressure to hold Southwest management accountable. A massive winter storm sent the entire industry into a tailspin starting Thursday before Christmas, but challenges on Southwest snowballed as competing airlines recovered from weather delays. Southwest canceled nearly 3,000 flights Monday, while budget carrier Frontier canceled just 48 planes.
Air travel experts say Southwest’s failure to update its decades-old scheduling software has catalyzed mass cancellations that have left customers stranded domestically. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said his agency is prepared to impose hefty fines on Southwest “if they fail to do what is required to take care of passengers.”
Although Friday saw Southwest return to operations, the fiasco deeply tarnished the reputation of the Golden State’s “unofficial flag carrier.” The episode could cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars, and Southwest now faces many loyal customers questioning their loyalty to the carrier.
“I was hard on Southwest no matter what,” said Heath Lehman, a frequent Southwest flier. “It won’t happen again.”
Lehman and her son Ethan were trying to salvage a long-awaited Hawaiian vacation. After watching customers cry at an Arkansas airport on Christmas Day, they booked a $600 rental car to Dallas, and after spending “a full human day” without waiting, the couple were on their last leg. They could almost taste the Mai Tais and feel the sand between their toes, but first they had a six-hour layover in rainy Auckland.
“We’re praying,” Lehman said.
But many passengers said they were willing to give the airline a second chance, citing years of good service. “I like Southwest because they used to make things right,” said Hope Vailancourt, who with her husband, Scott, had to spend a few nights in an unscheduled hotel stay in San Jose. “I’m sure they will.” They are a good airline, so I hope things will work out.”