Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg vowed to hold Southwest Airlines “accountable” for cancelling thousands of flights over the Christmas holidays.
The besieged carrier scrubbed a further 2,500 flights on Wednesday according to Flight Aware, piling more misery on stranded travellers who have had their Christmas plans wrecked by the weather-related disruptions.
Mr Buttigeig told CNN that it was an “unacceptable situation”.
“You look at the number of passengers stranded, you look at how hard it is even to get someone on the phone to address it.
“From what I can tell Southwest is unable to locate even where their own crews are, let alone their own passengers, let alone baggage.”
Southwest has now cancelled more than 15,700 flights since 22 December, when a deadly bomb cyclone started causing havoc with airline schedules.
But while other major airlines had been able to restore regular scheduling, Southwest was still cancelling more than 60 per cent of its flights on Wednesday.
“It really has completely melted down,” Mr Buttigeig told CNN.
He called on Southwest to pay cash refunds for cancelled flights and cover hotel and meal costs for stranded passengers.
Southwest CEO Robert Jordan released a video statement on Tuesday night saying he was “truly sorry” for the chaos.
He said the airline would operate a reduced schedule for several more days but hoped to be “back on track before next week”.
Mr Jordan blamed Winter Storm Elliott for wreaking havoc on the airline’s “highly complex” network.
“Here’s why this giant puzzle is taking us several days to solve. Southwest is the largest carrier in the country, not only because of our value and our values, but because we build our flight schedule around communities, not hubs,” he said.
Southwest’s computer systems recover from disruptions work “99 per cent of the time”, but system upgrades were clearly needed, he added.
The airline has already cancelled a further 1,400 flights on Thursday.
Travellers have been reporting waiting hours to reach a customer representative, and have resorted to sleeping on airport floors surrounded by piles of luggage.
Southwest Airlines Pilots Association President Casey Murray told ABC News the past few days had been “a failure at every level”.
“Our processes, our IT, our infrastructure just wasn’t there to support the operation and unfortunately our customers are bearing the brunt of it.”
He said the airline had failed to heed the warnings of a similar meltdown in October 2021.
“The airline cannot connect crews to airplanes. The airline didn’t even know where pilots were at.”
The largest number of cancelled flights on Tuesday were at airports in Denver, Chicago Midway, Las Vegas, Baltimore and Dallas, where Southwest is a major carrier, the Associated Press reported.