Analysts also said Southwest had been slow to introduce new systems that would help it run its business. “Southwest has never viewed technology as a strategic priority,” Mr. Harteveldt said.
Those and other failures are expected to draw the scrutiny of officials in Washington, where lawmakers like Senator Maria Cantwell, who leads the Commerce Committee, called on Tuesday for stronger protections for travelers, including federal rules that require airlines to issue refunds for delayed or canceled flights.
Making matters worse for customers: Southwest has a policy of not exchanging tickets with other airlines, so the company could not rebook passengers on other flights, Mr. Harteveldt said. The debacle could force the airline to “buy back” frustrated customers with deeper discounts or conduct more promotions, he said.
No single region or airport bore the brunt of the cancellations, though airports with a large Southwest presence were hit the hardest. Those airports included Denver International, Chicago Midway, Harry Reid International in Las Vegas and Sacramento International.
It has been nearly a week since the winter storm began wreaking havoc for millions of travelers. The number of canceled flights began to rise Thursday, when airlines called off more than 2,600 of them. The next day, nearly 6,000, or about a quarter of all U.S. flights, were canceled across the country. On Saturday, Christmas Eve, nearly 3,500 flights were canceled, and slightly fewer, about 3,200, were cut from the schedules on Christmas Day.
Reporting was contributed by Derrick Bryson Taylor, Daniel Victor, Shawn Hubler, Mark Walker and Steve Lohr.