(CNN) – Relief is still just days away for travelers booked with Southwest Airlines this week, as the beleaguered airline continues to grapple with what US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has referred to as a complete breakdown of the system.
In all, Southwest has canceled more than 15,700 flights since wintry weather began disrupting air travel on Dec. 22. That number includes more than 2,300 flights already canceled on Thursday. Other US airlines have since recovered from the storm’s disruptions.
Denver International Airport leads the way Wednesday in the number of cancellations. At Chicago Midway and Dallas Love Field, nearly half of flights were canceled Wednesday.
Southwest plans to fly a reduced schedule over the next few days to reset crew and aircraft, CEO Bob Jordan said in a video released by the airline late Tuesday. “We’re optimistic we’ll be back on track before next week,” Jordan said.
Buttigieg says he spoke directly to Jordan on Tuesday about the thousands of canceled flights this week.
“Their system has completely melted,” Buttigieg told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday.
“I have made it clear that our management will hold them accountable for their responsibilities to customers, both to get them out of this situation and to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Tuesday at a glance
CNN’s Carlos Suarez reports from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, as travelers brave long lines and canceled flights after a massive winter storm swept the United States.
More than 3,200 flights in, in or out of the United States were canceled on Tuesday, according to FlightAware.
Of those canceled flights, about 2,694 were Southwest flights – a staggering 84% of all canceled flights in the United States.
Long lines of travelers trying to rebook or make connections were seen at Southwest ticket counters at several US airports on Tuesday, while huge piles of unclaimed bags continued to grow as passengers struggled to retrieve their luggage at airports including Midway. Chicago International, and Harry Reid in Vegas. Vegas Airport and William P. Hobby in Houston.
Passenger Trisha Jones told CNN at Atlanta airport that she and her partner have been traveling for five days, trying to get home in Wichita, Kansas, after disembarking from a cruise in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
After her flight was cancelled, she stayed with relatives, then changed course to Atlanta to catch a connecting flight.
“We were lucky, because we were in Fort Lauderdale—my family lives in the Tampa Bay area so we were able to rent a car to go see my family for Christmas,” Jones said. “We’ve seen so many families sleeping on the floor, and it just breaks my heart.”
Buttigieg: Lots of cleaning to do
Canceled Southwest Airlines flights are displayed on the dashboard at California’s Oakland International Airport on Tuesday.
Southwest blamed the travel debacle on several factors, including winter storm delays, strict flight scheduling and aging infrastructure.
“From what I can tell, Southwest is not able to locate their own crews, let alone their passengers, let alone baggage,” Buttigieg said, adding that he also spoke with airline union leaders representing flight attendants and pilots.
The minister said he told Jordan’s CEO he expected Southwest to proactively offer refunds and reimbursements to affected passengers without them having to ask.
“I have conveyed to the CEO our expectation that they will go above and beyond to take care of the passengers and address this,” he said.
Buttigieg told CNN that the Department of Transportation is willing to pursue fines against Southwest if there is evidence that the company has failed to live up to its legal obligations, but added that the department will take a closer look at the airline’s ongoing customer service problems.
“While all the other parts of the aviation system have been moving towards recovery and improvement every day, they are actually moving in the opposite direction with this airline,” Buttigieg said.
“You have a company here that does a lot of cleaning,” he said.
Southwest CEO issues a video apology
“We’re doing everything we can to get back to normal operation, and please also hear that I’m really sorry,” Jordan said.
He said that with large numbers of planes and flight crews “off-site” in dozens of cities, the airline had decided to “significantly reduce our flights to catch up”.
While Jordan acknowledged problems with the company’s response, the statement indicated that he did not anticipate massive changes to Southwest’s operating plans in response to the mass cancellations.
“The tools we use to recover from disruption serve us well 99% of the time, but clearly we need to double down on our existing systems upgrade plans for these extreme conditions so we don’t experience what is happening now again,” Jordan said.
Is there anything passengers can do?
Katie Nastro, a spokeswoman for Scott Cheap Flights, shares her advice on what to do if your flight is delayed or canceled.
Southwest warned that cancellations and delays are expected to continue this week for several more days.
So what should customers do?
“Every airline in the country is packed right now, so the odds of finding a seat—let alone getting a decent halfway fare—are getting smaller by the hour,” Potter said.
“Travelers in the midst of this need to make sure they keep all their receipts: other flights, rental car, hotel nights, meals, anything,” Potter said.
“The main hotline for US airlines will be clogged with other passengers rebooking. To get to an agent quickly, call any one of the airline’s dozens of international offices,” said Scott Keyes.
“Agents can handle your reservation just like those in the US do, but there’s really no need to wait.”
Southwest: “Keep Your Receipts”
After their trip is cancelled, 13 strangers decide to rent a van and drive all the way from Orlando to Knoxville, Tennessee.
Southwest spokesperson Jay McVeigh said at a news conference at Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport Monday night that the airline will do everything it can to correct the challenges passengers have encountered, including “hotels, ride assistance, vans … make sure you get back Get these people home as soon as possible.”
He promised that all clients, even those who had already left the airport or made alternative arrangements on their own, would also be taken care of.
“If you’ve already left, take care of yourself, do what you want to do for your family, and keep your receipts,” McVay said. “We will make sure they are taken care of, that is not a question.”
What is wrong from the pilot’s point of view
Passengers search for their luggage at Hollywood Burbank Airport in California on Tuesday.
Robin Beck/AFP/Getty Images
He described last week’s storm as a catalyst that helped create major technical problems.
“What’s gone wrong is that our IT infrastructure for program scheduling is greatly outdated,” he said. “It can’t handle the number of pilots, flight attendants in the system, with our complex road network.
“We don’t have the normal hub that other major airlines have. We fly a point-to-point network, which can put our crews in the wrong places, without planes.”
He added, “It’s frustrating for the pilots, flight attendants and especially our passengers. We’re tired of apologizing to Southwest, the airline pilots, our hearts go out to all the passengers, they really do.”
Gregory Wallace, Andy Rose, Andy Babineau, Adrian Brodos, Dave Allsup, Nick Valencia, David Goldman, Leslie Pirro, Carlos Suarez and Ross Levitt contributed to this story.
“Beer buff. Devoted pop culture scholar. Coffee ninja. Evil zombie fan. Organizer.”