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Cantwell questions Southwest Airlines on service disruptions

Southwest Airlines COO Andrew Watterson testifies in Senate hearing with Senator Cantwell after winter travel breakdown | Source: C-SPAN

WASHINGTON, D.C., February 14, 2023—Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) and the Senate Commerce Committee questioned Southwest Airlines over the massive disruption of service that occurred over the holiday season during a hearing on Thursday, February 9. Issues led to the cancellation of over 16,000 flights, leaving millions of passengers stranded. 

Testifying in front of the committee were Southwest Airlines Chief Operating Officer Andrew Watterson; Southwest Airlines Pilots Association President Casey Murray; Airlines for America Legislative and Regulatory Policy Senior Vice President Sharon Pinkerton; and Flyers’ Rights President Paul Hudson. Noticeably missing from the hearing was Southwest Airlines President and Chief Executive Officer Bob Jordan.

“Let me be clear — we messed up,” Watterson said. “In hindsight, we did not have enough winter operational resilience.”

This lack of “winter operational resilience” resulted in thousands of ruined holiday plans and reunions, missed weddings, lost luggage, and travelers unable to access medication, to name a few. 

“I want to sincerely and humbly apologize to those impacted by the disruption,” Watterson said. “It caused a tremendous amount of anguish, inconvenience, and missed opportunities for our customers and employees during a time of year when people want to gather with their families and avoid stressful situations.”

According to the airline, Southwest initially canceled flights due to inclement weather. These flights included those out of airports like Denver and Chicago — both major hubs for Southwest. This caused a chain-reaction of flights utilizing the crews out of these airports to subsequently be canceled. 

“With such a large percentage of flights canceled — for such a long duration — in Denver and Chicago especially, the Southwest Airlines crew network was under severe stress as we entered December 24th,” Watterson said

However, unlike other airlines, Southwest was unable to quickly recover once flights resumed. 

“All this occurred while other airlines had empty seats,” Hudson said

Cantwell highlighted this in her opening remarks as chair of the committee.

“While bad weather can happen and is expected — and many airlines recovered quickly — Southwest stood out on its scope of the problems it faced,” Cantwell said.

Murray described Southwest as a “complex operation held together by duct tape and bailing wire.” The committee questioned Watterson on why Southwest failed to act on “more than two dozen” warnings about the antiquated staff scheduling software by the Pilot’s Association.

“This isn’t a plug-and-play — it’s got to be holistic,” Watterson said. “The last domino was the crew scheduling system not functioning the way we’d like.”

Watterson went on to remark that Southwest is reviewing their options and is willing to spend more than $1.3 billion to fix and upgrade their current system.

Southwest is not only being criticized for how the critical failure was handled, but also for the dividends that were paid out that very same month.

“A lot of people suffered a lot because of this,” Cantwell said. “And you just paid out a huge dividend. So people want to know, are these guys going to invest in the technology that will make this system operational, so this will never happen again?”

Hudson described these dividends during his opening statement.

“Because US airlines are not required to pay delay compensation for domestic flights — unlike for international air travel — Southwest avoided over half a billion dollars in delay expenses,” Hudson said. “Under the current system, airlines are actually incentivized to provide bad service. Good service costs money and bad service saves money. And that money can be used for dividends, stock buybacks, and executive compensation. Southwest proudly chose to be the first airline to restore dividends, paying $428 million in dividends to shareholders in December.”

The committee, however, was split on whether further regulations could prevent another disaster.

“I believe this sector needs a more effective policeman on the beat,” Cantwell said. “This incident shows us we need to get serious about this.”

Senator Tammy Duckworth agreed with Cantwell on the need for increased regulations.

“We must crackdown on carriers who have gotten away with predatory practices that treats passengers like suckers,” Duckworth said.

Senator Ted Cruz disagreed, stating that increased regulations would harm consumers.

“Regulatory overreach that egregious would undermine decades of progress in air travel, harming the various consumers that the DOT claims it is trying to protect,” Cruz said. “As frustrating as those several days were, the question of whether Southwest has made things right will be answered by the passengers… the Biden administration should let the flying public vote with its feet.”

Two days prior to the hearing, Cantwell hosted a virtual roundtable to listen to Washington residents impacted by the service failure.

“We don’t think this is the last time a… challenging event is going to hit our system,” Cantwell said during the roundtable. “No American should be stranded anywhere for four days without communication about what their options are.”

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