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Its Repute in Tatters, Southwest Goals to Resume Normal Schedule on Friday


Southwest Airlines, caught in a vexing tangle of misplaced staff and technical problems since last week’s winter storm, said Thursday that it planned to return to normal operations on Friday “with minimal disruptions.”

Over its five-decade history, Southwest has cultivated a popularity for cheap tickets, reliable customer support and flight crews with a humorousness. But the corporate’s meltdown stranded hundreds of travelers, bewildered employees and put its executives on the defensive, possibly doing damage to Southwest’s brand that might take years to repair.

Greater than 2,300 of Southwest’s flights were canceled on Thursday, or about 58 percent of the flights that it had scheduled for the day. Against this, the airline had canceled just 39 flights scheduled for Friday as of Thursday afternoon, in keeping with FlightAware, a flight tracking service.

“We all know even our deepest apologies — to our customers, to our employees and to all affected through this disruption — only go up to now,” the corporate said in a press release on Thursday.

Southwest’s problems began with a severe winter storm that disrupted every airline within the busy travel days before Christmas. But the corporate didn’t quickly bounce back like the remainder of the industry, largely due to technological shortcomings.

In a call with journalists on Thursday, Southwest’s executives said they might learn from the debacle, though they stopped in need of committing to a timeline for fixing the airline’s computer systems in order that they’ll withstand large-scale weather disruptions.

The corporate said the scheduling systems that match pilots and attendants to flights had turn out to be overwhelmed by the amount of changes that Southwest needed to make after frigid weather around Christmas forced it to start delaying and canceling flights. That left it unable to quickly restart flights when the weather improved since it couldn’t get crews to where its planes were. Southwest’s problems were compounded by its point-to-point system, wherein planes don’t often return to large hub airports — a contrast with other large airlines.

Southwest said it had marshaled a “volunteer army” of greater than 1,000 corporate employees to manually schedule crews.

“You possibly can’t plan to every part that might occur in any scenario,” Southwest’s chief executive, Bob Jordan, said. “But, yes, this has been an incredible disruption, and we will’t have this again.”

Southwest said the volunteers could be on standby for any future disruptions. “They brought their dogs; they brought their kids,” Andrew Watterson, Southwest’s chief operating officer, said on the decision. “All of them jumped in and helped out.”

The corporate’s slow recovery and poor communications in the course of the crisis earned it intense criticism from travelers, labor union leaders and government officials.

The transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, wrote to Mr. Jordan on Thursday, saying the disruption that Southwest customers had experienced was “unacceptable.” Mr. Buttigieg said he expected Southwest to reimburse customers for alternate travel arrangements they’d to make when flights were canceled and offer prompt refunds.

“I hope and expect that you’re going to follow the law, take the steps specified by this letter and supply me with a prompt update on Southwest’s efforts to do right by the shoppers it has wronged,” Mr. Buttigieg wrote.

In an interview on “Good Morning America” on Wednesday, Mr. Buttigieg described the issues at Southwest as a “system failure.”

Southwest now has to have interaction in an extended campaign to win back trust, said David A. Ball, the president of Ball Consulting Group, a company crisis management firm.

“When you will have the secretary of transportation occurring network television and saying that your organization is in a meltdown, that’s just about the definition of a crisis,” Mr. Ball said.

He added that the disruptions to Southwest’s service would require a “multiyear rebuilding effort for the brand,” including an in depth take a look at “every aspect of their brand and of their business.”

As executives scrambled to revive normal operations, customers remained removed from home and frustrated by the dearth of progress or ability to contact customer support for help. Some needed to spend greater than $1,000 for tickets on other airlines or for rental cars for cross-country road trips.

Alaina Voccio, a highschool teacher in Santa Monica, Calif., and her 17-year-old son had been stranded in Denver since last Friday after Southwest canceled their flight to Los Angeles.

Her relief upon hearing that Southwest expected its operations to return to normal on Friday was muted by the headache she had already endured — a missed Christmas celebration along with her daughter, a missed trip to Florida, and a whole bunch of dollars spent on hotel rooms and meals.

“I’d be thrilled if that’s true,” said Ms. Voccio, who was scheduled for a return flight on Friday morning. Provided that she hadn’t had any problems with Southwest before, Ms. Voccio said she would probably fly Southwest again if it adequately reimbursed the expenses that she and other travelers had accrued over the past week.

“I’m 46 years old, and I’ve been flying them since I used to be like 21. Stuff happens,” Ms. Voccio said. “I feel in the event that they take some low cost hard line, that’s going to sour me for my life.”

For Elsie Benitez and her husband, getting home for Christmas was blocked by a relentless series of missteps.

After arriving at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington on Saturday to fly home to Orlando, Fla., they learned that their flight had been canceled due to staffing shortages. They were rebooked for a flight leaving from Baltimore, about an hour’s drive away, for the following morning, Christmas Day.

Once they arrived on the Baltimore airport, the flight was postponed repeatedly. After eight hours of delays, it was canceled.

“We spent all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day on the airport,” said Ms. Benitez, 57, who works as an actual estate agent. “What a nightmare.”

Despite the chaos over the past few days, Southwest could bounce back, partially since it has engendered loads of good will amongst loyal customers through the years, said Jason Mudd, the chief executive of Axia Public Relations, which helps corporations facing crises but doesn’t have Southwest as a client.

“Often it’s one other airline or one other brand within the industry that we hear about that’s experiencing delays and cancellations very heavily,” Mr. Mudd said. “Southwest tends to be pretty reliable, or a minimum of has a popularity for being very reliable and really on time and efficient.”

Mr. Mudd cited the Tylenol poisonings of 1982, when someone put potassium cyanide in Extra-Strength Tylenol, causing seven deaths in Chicago and resulting in other, similar attacks. Johnson & Johnson, the parent company of Tylenol’s manufacturer, responded by adding recent safety features to its bottles.

“When it’s done well, organizations are going to place people over profits and do the best thing,” Mr. Mudd said. “On this case, that’s what I’m counting on Southwest to do.”

Southwest’s stock price closed nearly 4 percent higher on Thursday.

Daniel Victor contributed reporting.

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