With Only Dozens of Cancellations on Friday, Southwest Steps Closer to Normal

After a nightmare week of cancellations that left Southwest Airlines scrambling to repair its reputation, the beleaguered airline appeared to finally return to its normal schedule on Friday.

On Friday, just 43 of Southwest’s flights for the day were canceled, according to FlightAware, a flight-tracking service. A small number of cancellations each day is typical; barring any last-minute problems, dozens of cancellations would represent a steep improvement from Thursday, when more than 2,300 flights were canceled.

The company said in a statement on Thursday that it planned to return to its normal schedule on Friday “with minimal disruptions.”

“We know even our deepest apologies — to our customers, to our employees, and to all affected through this disruption — only go so far,” the company said.

The debacle started last week when a major winter storm scrambled plans across the United States, forcing many flights to be canceled during one of the year’s busiest weeks for travel. While other airlines were able to recover in a day or two, Southwest’s problems were only beginning.

On Sunday — Christmas Day — 1,635 Southwest flights were canceled, or 46 percent of its schedule for the day. That number grew to 2,908 on Monday, and stayed above 2,300 per day through Thursday.

Thousands of passengers were left with nightmare scenarios of being unable to contact customer service or book alternative flights. Passengers described sleeping on airport terminal floors, missing Christmas plans with family or renting cars to drive more than 10 hours home.

The issues stemmed from Southwest’s route model, which differs from that of its competitors, making it harder to put staff in place to restart operations after a disruption. (Read more about what caused the meltdown.)

The questions now facing Southwest include how to win back its customers, restore its reputation and prevent such debacles in the future. The company said on Thursday that it would be “investing in new solutions to manage wide-scale disruptions,” but has not offered specifics.

It will contend with increased federal scrutiny. The transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, has sharply criticized the company in interviews and wrote to Bob Jordan, Southwest’s chief executive, on Thursday, saying the disruption was “unacceptable.” Several senators have called for investigations, and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont said on Twitter on Thursday that the Transportation Department “must hold Southwest’s CEO accountable for his greed and incompetence.”

The meltdown could also cost the company many millions of dollars in compensation, as it sorts through how many customers were affected and what meals, hotel bookings and alternate transportation will be reimbursed.

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