(CNN) — For passengers who booked with Southwest Airlines this week, the much-needed conclusion to the carrier’s problems is still several agonizing days away.

    As the beleaguered airline continues to sort through stranded passengers, unrecovered luggage and planes out of position, US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has taken the airline to task.

    He called the situation a complete “collapse” of the system. And this collapse continues Wednesday afternoon.

    Of the 2,844 cancellations already scheduled for flights departing, arriving or departing from the United States as of 2 p.m. ET on Wednesday, some 2,509 of them are operated by Southwest, according to flight tracking website FlightAware. This represents 88% of all flights canceled in the United States; all other airlines together account for the remaining 12%.

    In total, Southwest has canceled about 15,700 flights since winter weather began to disrupt air travel on Dec. 22. This figure includes nearly 2,350 flights already canceled for Thursday.

    It’s now a southwestern problem

    Other US airlines flying in the same weather conditions have since recovered from the disruption caused by the storm.

    In fact, American Airlines and United Airlines have capped prices on some routes served by Southwest Airlines to make their flights more accessible to stranded passengers.

    Southwest does not have interlining agreements with other carriers that would allow its agents to rebook passengers on another airline, leaving travelers to explore other options.

    Denver International Airport leads the number of cancellations Wednesday, with significant cancellations at Chicago Midway, Dallas Love Field, Las Vegas Harry Reid and Nashville International airports, among others.

    Southwest plans to fly on a reduced schedule over the next few days to reposition crew and aircraft, airline CEO Bob Jordan said in a video released by the airline on Tuesday evening.

    “We’re optimistic to be back on track before next week,” he said.

    Buttigieg says he spoke directly to Jordan on Tuesday about the thousands of flights that were canceled this week.

    “Their system has really completely melted,” Buttigieg told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday.

    “I have clarified that our department will hold them accountable to their responsibilities to customers, both to help them through this situation and to ensure it does not happen again.”

    Those responsibilities include providing meal vouchers and hotel accommodations to passengers whose flights have been disrupted “as a result of Southwest’s decisions and actions,” a Department of Transportation spokesperson said Tuesday.

    U.S. airlines are also required to provide cash refunds to passengers whose flights were canceled and chose not to travel, the DOT said.

    Tuesday in brief

    CNN’s Carlos Suarez reports from Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta, where travelers brave long lines and flight cancellations after a massive winter storm swept across the United States.

    According to FlightAware, 3,211 flights within, to or from the United States were canceled on Tuesday.

    Southwest accounted for 2,694 of those canceled flights, or 84% of all canceled flights in the United States.

    Long lines of travelers trying to book 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 get their luggage from airports, including Midway International in Chicago, Harry Reid in Las Vegas and William P. Hobby Airport in Houston

    Passenger Trisha Jones told CNN at Atlanta airport that she and her partner had been traveling for five days, trying to get home to Wichita, Kansas after disembarking from a cruise in Fort Lauderdale, Florida .

    After her flight was canceled, she stayed with relatives, then was rerouted 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 saw a lot of families sleeping on the floor, and it breaks my heart.”

    Buttigieg: “A lot of cleaning to do”

    Hundreds of bags remain unclaimed at Baltimore Washington International Airport (BWI) on December 28.

    Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

    Southwest blamed the travel disaster on several factors, including winter storm delays, aggressive flight schedules and outdated infrastructure.

    “From what I can tell, Southwest is unable to locate even where its own crews are, let alone its own passengers, let alone its baggage,” Buttigieg said, adding that he also spoke with leaders of airline unions representing flight attendants and pilots.

    The secretary said he told CEO Jordan that he expects Southwest to proactively offer refunds and expense reimbursements to affected passengers without them having to ask.

    “I have communicated to the CEO our expectation that they will go above and beyond to take care of the passengers and resolve this issue,” he said.

    Buttigieg told CNN the Department of Transportation is prepared to issue fines to Southwest if the company is found to have failed to meet its legal obligations, but added that the department will take a closer look at service issues. regular airline customers.

    “While every other part of the aviation system is heading towards recovery and getting better every day, it’s actually going in the opposite direction with this airline,” Buttigieg said.

    “You have a business here that has a lot of cleaning to do,” he said.

    Southwest CEO posts video apology

    Jordan apologized to passengers and employees in the video released Tuesday evening.

    “We are doing everything we can to get back to normal operation, and please also hear that I’m so sorry,” Jordan said.

    He said that with large numbers of planes and flight crew “out of position” in dozens of cities, the airline decided to “dramatically reduce our flights to catch up.”

    Although Jordan acknowledged problems with the company’s response, the statement suggested 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 a disruption serve us well 99% of the time, but clearly we need to double down on our already existing plans to upgrade systems for these extreme circumstances so that we never face again. to what’s going on right now,” Jordan said.

    Is there anything passengers can do?

    Katy Nastro, spokesperson for Scott’s Cheap Flights, shares her advice on what to do if your flight is delayed or cancelled.

    Southwest warned that this week’s cancellations and delays are expected to continue for several days.

    So what should customers do?

    “First of all, travelers who are still waiting on Southwest and need to get somewhere should try to book a flight with another airline as soon as possible…right now, really,” said Kyle Potter, editor. in chief of the travel council. Thrifty Traveler website, in an email to CNN Travel late Tuesday afternoon.

    “Every airline in the country is packed right now, so your chances of even finding a seat — let alone at a half-decent price — go down by the hour,” Potter said.

    “Travelers at the heart of it all need to be sure to keep all of their receipts: other flights, a rental car, hotel nights, meals, whatever,” Potter said.

    If you’ve been abandoned and your efforts to reach a customer service agent are going nowhere, the founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights suggests trying an international number.

    “The US airlines’ main hotline will be jammed with other passengers rebooking. To quickly reach an agent, call one of the airline’s dozens of international offices,” Scott said. Keyes. These agents can handle U.S.-based reservations, Keyes said.

    Click here for the international numbers that Southwest has already published.

    Southwest: “Keep your receipts”

    After their flight was canceled, 13 strangers decided to rent a van and drive all the way from Orlando to Knoxville, Tennessee.

    Southwest spokesman Jay McVay told a press conference at William P. Hobby Airport in Houston on Monday evening that the airline will do everything possible to address the challenges faced by passengers, including “hotels, transportation assistance, vans … rental cars to try to make sure these people get home as quickly as possible.”

    He promised that all customers, 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 need to do for your family, keep your receipts,” McVay relayed. “We’ll make sure they’re taken care of, that’s not a question.”

    What’s wrong from a pilot’s point of view

    Passengers search for their luggage at Hollywood Burbank Airport in California on Tuesday.

    Passengers search for their luggage at Hollywood Burbank Airport in California on Tuesday.

    Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

    Speaking to CNN on Tuesday, Southwest Airlines Pilots Association Vice President Captain Mike Santoro said the problems facing Southwest were the worst disruption he had seen in 16 years with the airline. .

    He described last week’s storm as a catalyst that helped trigger major technical issues.

    “What has gone wrong is that our IT infrastructure for scheduling software is largely outdated,” he said. “It can’t handle the number of pilots, flight attendants that we have in the system, with our complex route network.

    “We don’t have the normal hub of other major airlines. We operate a point-to-point network, which can put our crews in the wrong place, without planes.”

    He added: “It’s frustrating for the pilots, the flight attendants and especially our passengers. We are tired of apologizing to Southwest, the airline pilots, our thoughts are with all the passengers, they do really.”

    CNN’s Gregory Wallace, Andy Rose, Andi Babineau, Adrienne Broaddus, Dave Alsap, Nick Valencia, David Goldman, Leslie Perrot, Carlos Suarez and Ross Levitt contributed to this story.

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