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Transportation secretary Buttigieg addresses Southwest meltdown

SAN JOSE - Federal officials on Thursday reiterated their plan to hold Southwest Airlines accountable for its "meltdown" over the Christmas holiday weekend that has affected hundreds or more flights in the Bay Area, according to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg's office and the local airports.

Hundreds or more Southwest flights in the Bay Area were canceled Wednesday alone because of the meltdown. Nearly 150 were canceled Wednesday at Mineta San Jose International Airport.

Buttigieg said in a letter Thursday to Southwest CEO Robert Jordan, "I hope and expect that you will follow the law, take the steps laid out in this letter, and provide me with a prompt update on Southwest's efforts to do right by the customers it has wronged." 

Buttigieg blamed Southwest rather than the weather for the meltdown as other airlines failed to have the same problems as Southwest. Southwest officials said its operations will return to normal Friday.

The airlines said it has much work to do to manage wide-scale disruptions and it plans to invest to do so.
Buttigieg said the level of the disruption to Southwest customers caused by the company is "unacceptable."

Southwest canceled 59 percent of its flights Wednesday while other major airlines canceled 3 percent. FlightAware, which provides live flight statistics by airline, said Wednesday morning that 2,509 Southwest Airlines flights nationwide were canceled for the day. 

Buttigieg's letter said Southwest Airlines acknowledges that the problems the airline faced since Christmas Eve were within the airline's control. 

The secretary said his department will hold Southwest accountable if it fails to reimburse passengers for reasonable costs for alternate transportation to their intended destination for the period Dec. 24 to Jan. 2.

Southwest said it is committed to reimbursing passengers for the cost of meals when a controllable cancellation or delay between Dec. 24 and Jan. 2 caused customers to wait three hours or more for a new flight, Buttigieg wrote.

Southwest will also provide a hotel stay and transportation to and from the hotel for any passenger who experienced a controllable overnight delay or cancellation.

"Under the law, Southwest must provide prompt refunds when a carrier cancels a passenger's flight or makes a significant change in the flight, regardless of the reason, unless the passenger accepts rebooking," Buttigieg wrote. "This means Southwest must provide refunds within seven business days if a passenger paid by credit card, and within 20 days if a passenger paid by cash, check, or other means."

The secretary expects Southwest to also get its customers' bags to them as quickly as possible, using alternate shipping methods if necessary.

Up to 1,000 Southwest customers' bags were unaccounted for at any one time Wednesday at Oakland International Airport, airport spokesperson John Albrecht said.

"Under DOT's regulation, Southwest is required to reimburse passengers up to $3,800 for provable direct or consequential damages resulting from the disappearance of, damage to, or delay in the delivery of a passenger's baggage," the secretary wrote.

Buttigieg blamed Southwest Airlines leadership for the Christmas holiday meltdown and not the airline's employees.

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