Southwest CEO apologizes as airline begins return to normal after days of cancellations, delays

DALLAS - SEPTEMBER 27: Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly speaks to reporters during a press conference about the company's plan to merger with AirTran Airways at Southwest Airlines Corporate Headquarters September 27, 2010 in Dallas, Texas. In a trend of continuing airline consolidation Southwest will buy its rival AirTran for an estimated $1.4 billion. (Photo by Lawrence Jenkins/Getty Images) (Lawrence Jenkins via Getty Images)
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Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said the carrier's operations were "much improved" Tuesday, with the airline canceling only a small fraction of its flights for the day after suffering massive disruptions over the weekend.

Data from aviation tracker FlightAware showed 91 canceled Southwest flights as of Tuesday afternoon , about 2% of its schedule. An additional 242 flights were delayed. The figures were far lower than Monday, when the airline canceled more than 10% of flights and more than 40% were delayed.

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"I want to apologize to all of our customers," Kelly said in an interview with ABC's "Good Morning America."

The problems showed how small disruptions can snowball as airlines seek to recover from the pandemic. Southwest said the disruptions began with bad weather and air traffic control issues in Florida early in the weekend. But then they continued, leading to more than 2,000 canceled flights that left passengers stranded and seeking help.

Kelly said the problems in Florida hit Southwest particularly hard because about half of its planes go through the state.

"It just put the airline way behind on Friday," Kelly said. "There were no ATC issues over the weekend - that's absolutely true - but I think any industry expert knows that it takes several days if you have that large of an impact on the operation to get the airplanes where they need to be and then to match the crews up with that."

The airline was still churning through complaints from passengers on Twitter, offering apologies and aid to those who needed it.

"We're confident more favorable circumstances will prevail the next time we welcome you onboard," one response from Southwest read.

The disruptions at Southwest are similar to problems the carrier and some of its competitors faced over the summer. Analysts say airlines' staff cuts during the pandemic are leaving them vulnerable as they seek to welcome travelers back. Kelly said that Southwest had "moderated" its schedule and was planning to hire more but that the airline was continuing to face higher rates of absenteeism because of the ongoing pandemic.

Kelly announced in June that he plans to retire as Southwest's chief executive early next year but will continue at the company as executive chairman of its board. He will be replaced by Robert Jordan, a longtime executive at the airline.

Some leading conservatives claimed the disruptions were caused by pilots protesting Southwest's coronavirus vaccine mandate. There was no evidence that was the case, and the airline, its pilots union and the government all pushed back against the claims.

"To be clear: None of the information from Southwest, its pilots union, or the FAA indicates that this weekend's cancellations were related to vaccine mandates," the Federal Aviation Administration wrote in a tweet Monday evening.

On Monday, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association circulated an analysis of the weekend and long-term staffing trends that showed no indication that any unsanctioned protests were a cause of the disruptions. The union found that sick rates for October were broadly consistent with recent months. There was also evidence that pilots were continuing to step forward to take on extra flights.

"If there was some sorts of grass-roots effort, they definitely wouldn't be doing that," said Amy Robinson, a spokeswoman for the union.

On Sunday the union found that a large number of pilots were on "dead head" flights - a sign that the airline was pushing to get them back in position for the coming week.

At the same time, the union said longer-term issues are taking a toll on pilots. It said crews are stretched thin by Southwest's current schedule, describing "chronic manning problems and cumulative fatigue that have occurred since June."

"The sick rate is slowly creeping up as our crews continue to get worn down by the operation," the union said.

Air travel rebounded more quickly from the coronavirus than some analysts had predicted, putting unexpected pressure on airlines. The spread of the delta variant and rising case numbers blunted some of the recovery, and while analysts at Bank of America said this week that they expect the coming holiday season to be "strong," they noted that Southwest and Spirit Airlines had pared back flying to ward off further disruptions.

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