(CNN) – Relief is still days away for passengers who made reservations at Southwest Airlines this week, as the embattled airline continues to struggle after US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg described the system as completely broken.
The airports canceled Wednesday were Denver International, followed by Chicago Midway International, Baltimore/Washington International, Dallas Love Field, Nashville International, Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas and Phoenix Sky Harbor International.
Buttigieg says he spoke directly to Southwest CEO Bob Jordan on Tuesday about the thousands of canceled flights this week, with no immediate indication of when passengers will be able to rebook.
“Their system has literally completely melted down,” Buttigieg told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday.
“I’ve made it clear to customers that our department needs to hold them accountable for their responsibilities and to get them out of this situation and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Mars at a Glance
CNN’s Carlos Suarez reports from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport that travelers are braving long lines and canceling flights after a major winter storm swept across the United States.
According to FlightAware, 3,200 flights to, within or out of the United States were canceled on Tuesday.
Of those cancellations, about 2,693 were Southwest flights — 84% of all cancellations in the US.
Passengers at Southwest ticket counters at several U.S. airports on Tuesday saw long lines trying to rebook or connect, while large piles of unclaimed bags continued to grow as passengers struggled to retrieve their luggage at airports including Chicago’s Midway International, Harry Reid in Los Angeles. Vegas in Houston and William B. Hobby Airport.
Passenger Trisha Jones told CNN at the airport in Atlanta that she and her partner had been traveling for five days and were trying to get home to Wichita, Kansas, after getting off a ship in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
After his flight was canceled, he stayed with relatives and was later sent back to Atlanta to catch a connecting flight.
“We were lucky because we were in Fort Lauderdale — my family lives in the Tampa Bay area, so we rented a car to visit my family for Christmas,” Jones said. “We’ve seen so many families sleeping on the floor, it breaks my heart.”
BoutiqueGeek: ‘A lot of cleaning to do’
Canceled Southwest Airlines flights are displayed on a bulletin board at Oakland International Airport in California on Tuesday.
Southwest blamed a number of factors for the travel disaster, including winter storm delays, aggressive flight scheduling and outdated infrastructure.
“All I can say is that Southwest can’t even find where their own employees are, let alone their own passengers, let alone their baggage,” Buttigieg said, adding that he also spoke with the leaders of airline unions representing flight attendants and pilots.
The secretary said the CEO told Jordan that he expected Southwest to provide advance refunds and reimbursements to affected passengers without them asking.
“I conveyed to the CEO our expectation that they go above and beyond to take care of passengers and address this,” he said.
Buttigieg told CNN that the Department of Transportation is prepared to issue fines against Southwest if there is evidence that the company failed to meet its legal obligations, but he said the department will closely monitor persistent customer service issues at the airline.
“While every other part of the aviation system is moving toward recovery and improving every day, it’s actually moving in the opposite direction with this airline,” Buttigieg said.
“You have a company here that needs a lot of cleaning,” he said.
Southwest CEO Video Apology
“We’re doing everything we can to get back to a normal surgery, and please hear that I’m truly sorry,” Jordan said.
Although Jordan acknowledged the problems with the company’s response, the statement suggested that he did not expect massive changes to Southwest’s procedures in response to the mass cancellations.
“The tools we use to recover from disruptions serve us well 99% of the time, but we need to double down on existing programs to improve systems for these extreme situations so that we never have to face what’s happening now again,” Jordan said.
“We’re confident we’ll be back on track before next week.”
Can passengers do anything?
Katie Nostro, spokeswoman 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 will continue for several more days.
So what should customers do?
“Every airline in the country is jam-packed right now, so your chances of finding a seat — let alone at a half-decent price — are slim to none within hours,” Potter said.
“The thick of it is travelers should save all their receipts: other flights, a rental car, hotel nights, meals, anything,” Potter said.
“The main hotline for US airlines is clogged with other passengers being rebooked. Call any of the airline’s dozens of international offices to get an agent quickly,” said Scott Keys.
“Agents can handle your booking just like US-based ones, but there’s no need to wait to receive it.”
Southwest: ‘Keep your receipts’
After their flight was canceled, 13 strangers decided to rent a van and drive from Orlando to Knoxville, Tennessee.
Southwest spokesman Jay McVay said Monday night that Houston’s William B. At a press conference at Hobby Airport, “The airline will do everything possible to fix the challenges experienced by passengers, including hotels, ride aids, vans … rental cars. These people will be sure to return home as soon as possible.”
He assured that all customers, even those who had already left the airport or made their own alternative arrangements, would be taken care of.
“If you’ve already left, take care of yourself, do what you need to do for your family, keep your receipts,” relayed McVay. “We’ll make sure they’re taken care of, that’s not a question.”
What is wrong from the pilot’s point of view?
Passengers search their luggage at Hollywood Burbank Airport in California on Tuesday.
Robin Beck/AFP/Getty Images
He described last week’s storm as helping to trigger major technical issues.
“What’s wrong is that our IT infrastructure for programming software is very outdated,” he said. “With our complex route network, it cannot handle the number of pilots, flight attendants in the system.
“We don’t have the normal hub that other major airlines do. We fly a point-to-point network, which puts our crew in the wrong places without the planes.”
He added: “This is frustrating for the pilots, flight attendants and especially our passengers. We are tired of apologizing for Southwest, the pilots at the airline, and our hearts go out to all passengers, they really do.”
CNN’s Andy Rose, Andy Babineau, Adrian Pratus, Dave Alsop, Nick Valencia, David Goldman, Leslie Perot, Carlos Suarez and Ross Levitt contributed to this story.