(CNN) — For passengers who are booked with Southwest Airlines this week, the much-needed conclusion to the carrier’s troubles is still several agonizing days away.
As the beleaguered airline continues to sort out stranded passengers, uncollected baggage and out-of-position airplanes, US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has taken the airline to task.
He’s referred to the situation as a complete “meltdown” of the system. And the airline’s decision to enact “operational emergency” staffing procedures last week at the airport in Denver as a massive winter storm bore down hints at a tangle of factors contributing to the airline’s operational crisis.
The emergency staffing procedures in Denver included requiring a note from a doctor to verify illness after an employee calls out sick, a Southwest spokesperson told CNN Wednesday.
The spokesperson could not say whether the staffing policy remains in place or when the special rules ended.
The operational emergency — experienced only at Denver, according to the company — is distinct from the issue the company says is to blame for the cascade of cancellations.
Denver International Airport has announced plans to conduct after-action reviews with the airport’s three major carriers — Frontier, Southwest and United — to learn from the disruptions while the situation is still fresh.
The wider cascade of cancellations continued into Wednesday afternoon.
Latest flight cancellation stats
Of the 2,884 cancellations already logged for Wednesday flights departing within, to or out of the United States as of 5:15 p.m. ET, some 2,509 of them are operated by Southwest, according to flight tracking website FlightAware. That is 87% of all canceled flights in the United States; all the other airlines together account for the remaining 13%.
In all, Southwest has canceled about 15,700 flights since winter weather began disrupting air travel on December 22. That figure includes almost 2,350 flights already canceled for Thursday.
The airline has struggled to unwind itself from the cancellations that began with the winter storm. Union leaders say software and manual processes are used to reassign flight crews, who for safety reasons are limited in the number of hours they may work.
Southwest spokesperson Chris Perry told CNN the airline is not experiencing an issue with employees not showing up for work.
“We have not had staffing issues at any station across our operation and commend our People for the valiant work they are doing,” Perry said.
This is now a Southwest problem
Other US airlines that are flying in the same weather conditions have since recovered from the storm disruptions.
Southwest does not have interline agreements with other carriers that would allow its agents to rebook passengers on a different airline, leaving travelers in charge of exploring other options.
Denver International Airport is leading the way Wednesday in the number of cancellations, with significant cancellations at Chicago Midway, Dallas Love Field, Las Vegas Harry Reid and Nashville International airports, among others.
Southwest plans to fly a reduced schedule over the next few days to reposition crew and planes, airline CEO Bob Jordan said in a video released by the airline late Tuesday.
“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 have been canceled this week.
“Their system really has completely melted down,” Buttigieg told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday.
“I made clear that our department will be holding them accountable for their responsibilities to customers, both to get them through this situation and to make sure that this can’t happen again.”
Those responsibilities include providing meal vouchers and hotel accommodations for passengers whose flights were disrupted “as a result of Southwest’s decisions and actions,” a Department of Transportation spokesperson said Tuesday.
US airlines are also required to provide cash refunds to passengers whose flights were canceled and opted not to travel, the DOT said.
Buttigieg: ‘A lot of cleaning up to do’
Hundreds of bags remain unclaimed at Baltimore Washington International Airport (BWI) on December 28.
Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Southwest has blamed the travel disaster on several factors, including winter storm delays, aggressive flight scheduling and outdated infrastructure.
“From what I can tell, Southwest is unable to locate even where their own crews are, let alone their own passengers, let alone baggage,” said Buttigieg, adding that he also spoke with leaders of the airline’s unions representing flight attendants and pilots.
The secretary said he told CEO Jordan that he expects Southwest to proactively offer refunds and expense reimbursement to affected passengers without them having to ask.
Buttigieg told CNN the Department of Transportation is prepared to pursue fines against Southwest if there is evidence that the company has failed to meet its legal obligations, but he added that the department will be taking a closer look at consistent customer service problems at the airline.
“While all of the other parts of the aviation system have been moving toward recovery and getting better each day, it’s actually been moving the opposite direction with this airline,” said Buttigieg.
“You’ve got a company here that’s got a lot of cleaning up to do,” he said.
Southwest CEO issues video apology
“We’re doing everything we can to return to a normal operation, and please also hear that I am truly sorry,” Jordan said.
He said with large numbers of airplanes and flight crews “out of position” in dozens of cities, the airline decided to “significantly reduce our flying to catch up.”
While Jordan acknowledged problems with the company response, the statement suggested that he did not foresee massive changes to Southwest’s operating plans in response to the mass cancellations.
“The tools we use to recover from 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 again face what’s happening right now,” said Jordan.
Is there anything passengers can do?
Katy Nastro, spokesperson for Scott’s Cheap Flights, shares her tips on what to do if your flight is delayed or canceled.
Southwest has warned that this week’s cancellations and delays are expected to continue for several more days.
So what should customers do?
“Every airline in the country is jam-packed right now, so your odds of even finding a seat — let alone at an even halfway decent price — get smaller by the hour,” Potter said.
“I recommend searching for alternative forms of transportation. While Southwest may get its act together over the next few days, I would not take the risk,” Dengler said. “It is legally required to provide you with a full cash refund if your flight was canceled, so it is in your best interest to have a solid backup plan.”
He also suggested looking for cheap car rentals from services such as AutoSlash.
“I also recommend checking Amtrak to see if any available trains are going to your destination,” he said.
He said if renting a car or taking a train are not options, you should use Google Flights to search for cheap flights from other airlines.
And “if all else fails, Southwest will eventually get you to your destination, but it may not be until the weekend or early next week. Travelers in the thick of this should be sure to save all their receipts,” Potter said.
Southwest itself has urged the same thing on receipts.
“If you’ve already left, take care of yourself, do what you need to do for your family, keep your receipts,” Southwest spokesperson Jay McVay said in a news conference earlier this week. “We will make sure they are taken care of, that is not a question.”
“The main hotline for US airlines will be clogged with other passengers getting rebooked. To get through to an agent quickly, call any one of the airline’s dozens of international offices,” Scott Keyes said.
If you’re booked if Southwest next week…
A person walks through luggage piled up around an unmoving baggage carousel inside the Southwest Airlines terminal at St. Louis Lambert International Airport on Wednesday..
Southwest says this will be sorted by next week. So what should people booked with Southwest a week from now do?
“You need a backup plan if you are booked to fly on Southwest next week. While the airline claims the issues will be sorted out next week, there is no guarantee of that happening,” said Dengler.
“Search for train tickets and look up car rental prices if that is possible for your destination. Most car rental companies allow you to cancel your reservation at any time for no reason, so it does not hurt to book a refundable rental.”
Another option: Search for refundable airline tickets.
“While it will be more expensive … If your Southwest flight is canceled, you will have a backup ticket with the other airline. You will also be entitled to a full cash refund from Southwest because of the cancellation.
If your Southwest flight is not canceled or significantly delayed, you can cancel your refundable ticket with the alternate airline,” Dengler said.
What’s wrong from a pilot’s point of view
Passengers look for their luggage at Hollywood Burbank Airport in California on Tuesday.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
He described last week’s storm as a catalyst that helped trigger major technical issues.
“What went wrong is that our IT infrastructure for scheduling software is vastly 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 the other major airlines do. We fly a point-to-point network, which can put our crews in the wrong places, without airplanes.”
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.
View more on Youtube 'Completely melted down': Buttigieg reacts to Southwest Airlines chaos
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg talks to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer about the “unacceptable situation” unfolding at Southwest Airlines as they canceled thousands of flights and describes a conversation he had with the airline’s CEO.