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Southwest Cancels Thousands of More Flights; The US government swears control

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By David Shepardson and Alexandra Alper

(RockedBuzz via Reuters) – Southwest Airlines came under fire on Tuesday by the US government after it canceled thousands of flights, and its boss, Bob Jordan, said the low-cost airline needed to upgrade its legacy airline systems .

US airlines canceled thousands of flights as a massive winter storm hit large parts of the country before the Christmas holiday weekend, but Southwest’s woes worsened as other airlines largely recovered.

The cancellations drew criticism from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg for what he called a “slump”. He told CNN that union leaders at the company had told him they had been “raising the alarm” about technology problems with Southwest systems for some time.

Jordan apologized to customers and employees in a video message and said, “Clearly we need to double down on our already existing plans to update systems for these extreme circumstances so we never again face what’s happening right now.”

The Dallas-based carrier, which typically has an aggressive schedule connecting large swathes of the country, has axed more than 12,000 flights since Friday.

On Tuesday, it canceled more than two-thirds of its 4,000 scheduled flights, accounting for more than 90 percent of all U.S. airline cancellations, tracking site FlightAware showed.

The airline said it will operate about a third of daily flights for the next few days.

“We’re optimistic about getting back on track before next week,” Jordan said.

Buttigieg told NBC, “This has clearly crossed the line from what is an uncontrollable weather situation to something that is the direct responsibility of the airline.”

Buttigieg, who said he’s spoken to Jordan, said he holds the airline responsible for making sure this doesn’t happen again and that the airline has offered refunds, meals and hotel rates for those stranded.

He tweeted that several airlines had agreed to cap fares on routes where Southwest Airlines was struggling to get passengers home. American Airlines said in a tweet that it was capping fares in select cities.

Southwest told RockedBuzz via Reuters it will reimburse customers for travel-related costs and had already processed thousands of requests by early Tuesday.

US President Joe Biden said his administration is working to ensure airlines are “held accountable,” according to a tweet on his official POTUS name.

Democratic Representative Colin Allred criticized the “catastrophic collapse” of Southwest’s flight schedule. US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chair Maria Cantwell said Southwest’s problems “go beyond time” and that the committee will look into the causes and impact of these disruptions.

Southwest shares closed down 6% to a two-month low.

“FORCED TECHNOLOGY”

Southwest earns most of its profits by flying domestically and relies on point-to-point service instead of operating from large hubs. This leaves staff vulnerable to being stranded during outages, and time has thrown Southwest’s staff into chaos.

“Southwest uses outdated technologies and processes, actually from the 1990s, that can’t keep up with the complexity of today’s network,” Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, told RockedBuzz via Reuters.

Murray said the software, Sky Solver, was developed in-house, and while Southwest’s flight scheduling model was more complex than others, it could still be handled with good software.

“We had planes available, but the process of matching those crew members with the plane couldn’t be handled by our technology,” Southwest said, adding that crew planners had to manually match planes with personnel, the which is “extraordinarily difficult”.

(Reporting by Kannaki Deka, Abhijith Ganapavaram, Aishwarya Nair in Bengaluru and David Shepardson in Grand Rapids, Michigan and Alexandra Alper in Washington DC; Editing by Shailesh Kuber, Sayantani Ghosh, David Gregorio and Gerry Doyle)

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