DALLAS (AP) – With its flights operating on a nearly normal schedule, Southwest Airlines is now looking to repair its damaged reputation after canceling 15,000 flights around Christmas and leaving holiday travelers stranded.

CEO Robert Jordan said Thursday that Southwest has processed about 75% of the refund requests it has received. He said the airline has returned most of the lost bags to their owners, and hired an outside firm to process requests for reimbursement for things like hotels and meals that stranded passengers paid for out of pocket. , They said.

mass disruption December 22 began with a winter storm, and Southwest’s antiquated crew-scheduling techniques were overwhelmed, leaving crews and aircraft out of position to operate flights. It took eight days for the airline to recover.

Jordan said in a brief interview that Southwest is still studying what went wrong, and doesn’t want to change the technology until that review is done. He expressed optimism but offered few specifics on how to avoid a repeat of the recession.

South West Giving 25,000 frequent-flyer points For customers whose flights were canceled or significantly delayed between December 24 and January 2, and it appears progress is being made toward refunds, but officials admit they need more time to process reimbursement requests. Will take several weeks.

Danielle Zanin is still waiting to hear whether Southwest will cover the $1,995.36 she spent during the four-day odyssey she spent four days in Illinois after her flight was canceled in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The family was at home. Even if he eventually gets the money, it may not be enough for him to try Southwest again.

“It will take a long time for the airline to prove to me that they can fix whatever technology they use to get flight crews and planes where they need to go. It’s not worth that trouble.” What I went through,” Zanin said. She said she plans to fly on American Airlines even though it will cost more.

Southwest hopes refunds, reimbursements and loyalty points will persuade people not to switch to other airlines, known in the industry as “Booking Away.”

“Book-aways typically have a short half-life, perhaps as little as a month, given that by many accounts it appears that Southwest reimburses not only the flight but other out-of-pocket costs.” Has been” and is serious about fixing. Robert Mann, an airline consultant in New York, said technical deficiencies made the crisis worse.

Retaining loyal customers is vital if Southwest is to limit the financial damage of the recession. The company has yet to say how much money it lost due to canceled flights — Jordan promised more details ahead of Southwest’s quarterly results report on January 26.

Raymond James airline analyst Savanti Sith estimated that the storm would cause Southwest about $585 million in damage, as well as higher costs. Mann said it is between $500 million and $600 million in the form of cash, vouchers and frequent flyer points.

Airlines — including Southwest as recently as October 2021 — have recovered quickly from past meltdowns, whether they were caused by inclement weather, crew shortages, IT outages or other factors. Passenger numbers, if they declined at all, quickly recovered.

“Reputation damage is only as relevant as what consumers can do about it,” said Michael Mazzeo, who teaches strategy at Northwestern University’s business school and has investigated airline competition. “As in a lot of markets, Southwest has little or no competition. When there is no outlet for consumers, the damage is more limited.”

Southwest, American, United and Delta control about 80% of the domestic air travel market. Southwest – it began 50 years ago as a low-cost competitor to the larger airlines, but has gradually become much like them – has a particularly outsized presence in a few large states, including California, Arizona and Texas .

Southwest remained relatively quiet for several days, even after it became clear it was struggling while other airlines were recovering from winter storms – and after repeated criticism from consumers, media reports and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg .

As canceled flights continue to mount by the day, Southwest provided few updates and declined requests for interviews with key executives. It posted a video apology by Jordan on December 27, followed by a video with another executive a day later. Company officials generally did not speak to the media until December 29, when they announced that Southwest would resume normal operations the following day.

“The company was slow to come forward in terms of corporate PR communications until the government went after them,” said Larry Yu, a George Washington (transportation) secretary who called the CEO directly and demanded that he release those Move fast for care.” University professor who studies crisis management in the tourism industry. “Short term, it’s a big loss.”

But Yu also noted that Southwest has a decades-long reputation for relatively low fares and good service. He praised the airline for its promise of refunds, reimbursements and frequent-flyer points.

“They have to do something to win back those customers,” Yu said. Now, he said, Southwest must vow to improve its technology, “because you don’t want to equate low-cost with low-tech.”

Jordan said Southwest has good technology, but added that the airline will re-examine IT priorities once it better understands how the December failure unfolded.

The debacle has also focused attention on the southwest among lawmakers in Congress.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Wednesday he would reintroduce a “passenger bill of rights” that failed to become law in the previous Congress.

He said in an interview, “Southwest’s defeat creates a moment when the forces in favor of such a consumer-protection measure may prevail.”

The Senate Commerce Committee said this week it will hold a hearing on the Southwest recession. Blumenthal said witnesses should include executives from Southwest and other airlines.

“This problem (of flight disruptions) is hardly limited to Southwest, it is hardly the first downturn in airline travel, and it is hardly unexpected,” Blumenthal said. He said it was baffling why Southwest didn’t improve its crew-scheduling technology after it failed during previous disruptions in the summer and fall of 2021.

Buttigieg has repeatedly said that his department is looking closely at Southwest and will hold it accountable for treating customers fairly.

Consumer groups have given the Department of Transportation’s oversight of airlines a mixed grade. They saw the Trump administration as a low point, with few enforcement actions taken against airlines despite record consumer complaints. The Biden administration last year fined Frontier Airlines and several foreign carriers for not quickly paying refunds to passengers whose flights were canceled during the early months of the pandemic, but advocates were disappointed that four US airlines None of the largest airlines were fined.

The Department of Transportation is charged with enforcing consumer-protection laws aimed at protecting airline passengers. Several consumer groups are urging Congress to let state officials and private parties sue airlines to enforce those laws — an effort that has so far been unsuccessful.

“Airlines are going to lobby hard to have as little regulation as possible, but with each passing recession it becomes clear that real change is needed,” said John Breyault, vice president of public policy at the National Consumers League.

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