Southwest Airlines says it's ready for the holidays after last December's accident

Last December was not a memorable one for Emily Cornelius.

The Denver resident was flying home on Christmas Eve after visiting family in Richmond, Virginia when she landed in Chicago for a layover.

Her Southwest Airlines flight was canceled, so she left the airport and spent the night with a friend. Eventually, she managed to rebook her tickets for the day after Christmas, but when she arrived at the airport, she encountered a series of delays before Southwest canceled her flight again.

Like many other Southwest customers at the end of last year, Cornelius found herself stranded at the terminal: her flights were canceled, checked baggage was lost, and the prospects of getting back home were uncertain.

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"Emotionally, it was just draining," Cornelius said. "Either we felt trapped at the airport, or we were spending money and didn't know if we'd be able to get back to accommodations outside the airport."

In the end, she took a Greyhound bus back to Denver and arrived on December 29 - five days later than originally planned.

Almost a year later, Southwest hopes to recover from last year's holiday crisis, when a combination of extreme winter weather and a cascade of technical problems led the airline to cancel 16,700 flights over a 10-day period in December.

Many potential travelers were unable to rebook tickets or rent cars. Claims for lost luggage overflowed. Customer support hotlines were overwhelmed. This disaster cost Southwest hundreds of millions in lost revenue, drew congressional investigators' scrutiny, and led once-loyal customers to permanently abandon the airline.

But this year, the airline claims it has invested in new weather equipment and upgraded its technology in anticipation of holiday frenzy, aiming to reassure customers and avoid a repeat of last year's results.

"The disruptions that occurred last winter were very hard on our customers and our employees. They weigh heavily on all of us here at Southwest Airlines," said Andrew Watterson, the airline's Chief Commercial Officer, during an October investor call about financial results.

"We are much better prepared for these extreme weather events now," he said.

How Southwest is Trying to Bounce Back In December, much of the United States was hit by a devastating winter storm that disrupted the operations of several airlines, including Southwest.

But what could have been a brief hiccup for the airline turned into a serious crisis, in part due to outdated computer systems and other technical glitches.

According to Southwest's estimates, this fiasco cost it $825 million in operational expenses and compensation, and it acknowledged that it saw a drop in bookings in January and February. Last month, the company also stated in a regulatory filing that it could face a fine from the Department of Transportation after it found the airline "failed to provide adequate customer service, immediate flight status notifications, and prompt refunds."

However, since last year, Southwest officials say they've invested money in technological upgrades and enhancements to the de-icing system to better prepare their operations for addressing logistical challenges brought about by severe weather.

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