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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Southwest says it plans to restore normal flight schedule Friday

By Daniel Victor and Soumya Karlamangla

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 Friday “with minimal disruptions.”

Over its five-decade history, Southwest has cultivated a reputation for inexpensive tickets, reliable customer service and flight crews with a sense of humor. But the company’s meltdown has stranded thousands of travelers, bewildered employees and put company executives on the defensive, possibly doing damage to Southwest’s brand that could take years to repair.

More than 2,300 of Southwest’s flights were canceled Thursday, or about 58% of the flights it had scheduled for the day. By contrast, the airline had canceled just 39 flights scheduled for Friday as of Thursday afternoon, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking service.

“We know even our deepest apologies — to our customers, to our employees and to all affected through this disruption — only go so far,” the company said in a statement Thursday.

The company’s problems started with a severe winter storm that disrupted every airline in the busy travel days before Christmas. But Southwest did not quickly bounce back like the rest of the industry, in large part because it relies on a different organizational structure that made it harder to recover from disruptions. In addition, the company had technical problems in the computer systems it uses to schedule flights and crews.

The company’s slow recovery and poor communications during the crisis earned it intense criticism from travelers, labor union leaders and government officials.

In an interview on “Good Morning America” on Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said of Southwest, “We are past the point where they could say that this is a weather-driven issue.”

He added: “What this indicates is a system failure, and they need to make sure that these stranded passengers get to where they need to go and that they are provided adequate compensation.”

Southwest will now have to engage in a long campaign to win back trust, said David A. Ball, the president of Ball Consulting Group, a corporate crisis management firm.

“When you have the secretary of transportation going on network television and saying that your company is in a meltdown, that’s pretty much the definition of a crisis,” Ball said.

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

As executives scrambled to restore normal operations, customers remained far from home and frustrated by the lack of progress or ability to contact customer service for help. Some had to spend more than $1,000 for tickets on other airlines or for rental cars for cross-country road trips.

Alaina Voccio, a high school teacher in Santa Monica, California, and her 17-year-old son had been stranded in Denver since Dec. 23 after Southwest canceled their flight to Los Angeles.

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

“I’d be thrilled if that’s true,” said Voccio, who was scheduled for a return flight Friday morning. Given that she hadn’t had any problems with Southwest before, 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 was like 21. Stuff happens,” Voccio said. “I think if they take some cheap hard line, that’s going to sour me for my life.”

Despite the chaos over the past few days, Southwest could bounce back, in part because it has engendered a lot of goodwill among loyal customers over its five-decade history, said Jason Mudd, CEO of Axia Public Relations, which helps companies facing crises but doesn’t have Southwest as a client.

“Usually it’s another airline or another brand in the industry that we hear about that is experiencing delays and cancellations very heavily,” Mudd said. “Southwest tends to be pretty reliable, or at least has a reputation for being very reliable and very on time and efficient.”

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

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

Southwest’s stock price closed about 4% higher Thursday afternoon after the company’s announcement.

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