Southwest Airlines CEO: ‘There’s no way to apologize enough’

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

“It affected so many people over the holidays — so many customers,” CEO Bob Jordan said in an interview with ABC’s Good Morning America. “I’m so sorry for that. There’s almost no way to apologize enough.”

Reimbursements for passengers will cover travelers’ expenses, including “rental cars, hotel rooms, meals, booking customers on other airlines — all of that will be part of what we cover,” Jordan said.

“We’re offering a refund, we’re covering the costs – we’ll be back with more after that,” he said. “Besides safety, there is no greater focus at this point than taking care of our customers, getting them back with their bags and getting their money back.”

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

“It was an unprecedented storm for everybody — for all the airlines,” Jordan said. “The storm had its impact, but we had impacts outside of the storm that affected the Southwest very differently.”

Jordan said the airline will operate its full schedule of about 3,900 flights on Friday. Flight tracking site FlightAware shows Southwest had canceled 40 flights, or about 1% of its schedule, by 8 a.m. ET.

“I’m very confident that we’re going to have a really tight operation today,” he said.

It would surely be a relief for the passengers and the company if those planes could take off again and the piles of accumulated baggage would decrease. There is a trail behind it.

Top U.S. government officials are at least concerned about how Southwest got to this point after a massive winter storm that grounded every other major U.S. airline days ago.

And they’re demanding Southwest fix things — or face financial consequences.

What Southwest said about today

In a statement released Thursday — after another bruising day in which another 2,362 flights were canceled — Southwest said it hoped for minimal disruption over the New Year’s weekend.

“We are encouraged by the progress we have made to realign the crew, their schedules and our fleet,” he said. “Even with our deepest apologies – to our customers, employees and anyone affected by this disruption – we only go so far,” he said.

“We have created a page at for customers to submit refund and reimbursement requests for meals, hotels and alternative transportation, as well as to connect customers to their luggage.”

However, that still doesn’t quell questions about how the airline’s systems could have allowed things to go so wrong and demand it never happen again. The Department of Transportation (DOT) is still taking a firm line with Southwest.

Southwest DOT: Thank you passengers

In a letter to Southwest CEO Jordan, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the airline will take action against the airline if it fails to honor its promises to reimburse passengers for alternative transportation, as well as meals, hotels, refunds and baggage consolidation.

Penalties include the possibility of fines.

“Failure to fulfill this obligation to passengers would be an unfair and deceptive practice,” Buttigieg wrote, specifically referring to alternative travel payments.

“The Department will use its investigative and enforcement powers to the fullest extent possible to hold Southwest accountable if it fails to honor its promises to reimburse passengers for alternative transportation.”

These fines can be significant.

“The airline told me they would go above and beyond what was required of them,” Buttigieg said Thursday in an interview with NBC News. “I’m looking to make sure they actually do that, and if they don’t, we can fine each passenger tens of thousands of dollars per violation.”

Regrets and repairs

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

Jeff Roberson/AP

Ryan Greene, the airline’s chief commercial officer, expressed regret on Thursday about the collapse of services and vowed to restore damaged customer relations.

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

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

His comments came amid Buttigieg’s own scathing assessment of South West’s woes, calling the situation a complete “meltdown”.

“You’ve got a company doing a lot of cleaning here,” he said.

Some understanding passengers

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

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

“I mean, it’s just par for the course. It’s flight travel, everybody’s trying to get everywhere at the same time. Unfortunately, Southwest has borne the brunt of the unfortunate state of travel this year,” Roderick Hister told CNN.

When asked what he thought about the lack of lines at the Southwest counters at the airport, Hister said, “Maybe it speaks to the improvements they want to make, because there are no long lines, people are not complaining here. So, you know, maybe the effort to save themselves is working.”

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

People want to know: What caused it?

Ask Southwest Airline employees about their company’s technology. You won’t get many raves.

Although Southwest has grown from a Texas-based discount airline to one of the nation’s largest with three planes, union officials representing Southwest employees say the company has failed to keep pace with technology changes. And they say they’ve been a concern for years.

“We’ve been talking to them every year since 2015,” Southwest Airlines Pilots Association captain and vice president Mike Santoro told CNN.

They and the airline itself described an internal process that required multiple departments to manually reschedule the airline – a system that works “the vast majority of the time,” the airline said in a statement.

When something goes wrong, Southwest’s software—including its crew scheduling system tool—leaves most of the work of rebuilding this sensitive network by hand.

Damaged reputation

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

He told CNN that it’s “a perfect storm for everything that’s going on with the company. It’s going to take them a long time to rebuild trust with consumers.”

Phil Dengler, co-founder of travel advice website The Vacationer, agrees.

“It will take a long time for Southwest Airlines to regain public trust. While extreme weather has affected other airlines, Southwest suffered a real collapse at the worst possible time,” he said.

“A large percentage of Americans only fly once a year and they want a hassle-free experience. I believe many people will take a break when booking their next flight, and they see Southwest Airlines as the cheapest option,” Dengler said.

“While lower prices are tempting, this downturn will cause many travelers to explore other cheaper options.”

What should customers do?

Dengler cautions to be careful with these promised refunds.

“Southwest says, ‘We will honor reasonable requests for food, hotel and alternative transportation expenses,'” he said. I would run away. Use Google Hotels to find hotels near your closed airport.”

It also warns against stacking a large tab.

“Do a few Google searches, like ‘free things to do near me.’ I doubt Southwest will cover tours or other paid activities, so I wouldn’t book expensive excursions that you can’t afford.”

CNN’s Andy Rose, Andi Babineau, Adrienne Broaddus, Dave Alsap, Nick Valencia, Devon Sayers, David Goldman, Leslie Perrot, Carlos Suarez, Karla Cripps and Ross Levitt contributed to this story.

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