As other airlines rebound from the holiday weekend's extreme weather disruptions, Southwest Airlines is still canceling the majority of its flights.
Before noon on Wednesday, the company had already canceled more than 50 percent of its flights for the day, compared to around 1 percent or less for most major U.S. airlines, according to flight-tracker FlightAware.
The situation drew the ire of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who in an interview with ABC News Tuesday night said, "In my judgment, this has crossed the line into something that is not just a weather delay, but something that the airline is responsible for."
He added that this means Southwest is on the hook for following through on its customer service commitments, including providing vouchers for hotels and restaurants to stranded passengers.
Stranded passenger, Gwendolyn Johnston, of Love Field, Dallas, holds her 14-month-old daughter, Madison, as she waits with family members at the Southwest terminal at the Los Angeles International Airport, Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022. Johnston's family visited Disneyland for the holidays with two other families. Now, all 11 members must book hotel rooms near LAX, as they won't be able to catch a return flight home in Texas until Jan. 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
"You shouldn't have to request it," he said. "This should be something they should be proactively offering.
Buttigieg said Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan told him the company would meet these commitments, but that the Department of Transportation would still be watching closely to ensure compliance. "Their system really has completely melted down, and I've made clear that our department will be holding them accountable for their responsibilities to customers."
The federal government has been pushing airlines to enhance their customer service benefits and follow through on existing policies since last summer, when travelers faced rampant delays and cancellations due to a combination of elevated demand and labor shortages. The Department of Transportation also introduced a rule designed to ensure ticket refunds when airlines are directly responsible for delays or cancellations.
In a video statement, Jordan said that the disruptions this time were the result of Southwest's vast footprint across the United States. "Here's why this giant puzzle is taking us several days to solve. Southwest is the largest carrier in the country, not only because of our value and our values, but because we build our flight schedule around communities, not hubs."
He added that "our network is highly complex and the operation of the airline counts on all the pieces, especially aircraft and crews remaining in motion to where they're planned to go." The executive said the airline plans to operate at a reduced schedule for the next few days, and he's "optimistic to be back on track before next week."
The Senate Commerce Committee, meanwhile, is planning an investigation into the debacle. U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who chairs the committee, said the problems at Southwest Airlines "go beyond weather."
"The Committee will be looking into the causes of these disruptions and its impact to consumers," she said. "Many airlines fail to adequately communicate with consumers during flight cancellations. Consumers deserve strong protections, including an updated consumer refund rule.”