Southwest Airlines: ‘We messed up’ in congressional hearing on mass cancellations

Feb 9, 2023, 12:27 PM

A Southwest Airlines jet passes unused luggage carts as it arrives, Dec. 28, 2022, at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix. Congress is hearing today about the December meltdown at Southwest Airlines. A Southwest executive said in prepared testimony Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023 that the airline is taking steps to avoid a repeat of the breakdown that led to nearly 17,000 canceled flights over the December holidays. (AP Photo/Matt York, file)

(AP Photo/Matt York, file)

Washington state Sen. Maria Cantwell and others on the transportation committee questioned Southwest leaders Thursday during a hearing about the airline’s late-December mass flight cancellation that left a reported 2 million passengers stranded.

Southwest canceled nearly 17,000 flights from December 21 to 31, initially blaming the cascading failures on storms sweeping most of the country. At Thursday’s hearing, leaders from the airline and the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association pointed fingers at an internal scheduling software that assigns staff to planes.

Senate panel probes holiday meltdown at Southwest Airlines

“These pilots that came here on their day off can attest to the chaos when they come to work,” Captain Casey Murray, president of the SAPA, said Thursday. “They don’t know where they’re going to go, they don’t know where they’re going to overnight, they don’t know how long they are going to be on duty, and they don’t know how long their overnight is going to be.”

Pilots reportedly told CNN and other news agencies that the software was so old it became somewhat of a running joke and that they’d pushed the company to replace it for years.

The airline’s chief operating officer, Andrew Watterson, testified that the software fix will go live Friday, but larger issues for smooth wintertime operations will take longer to fix. No exact timeline was proposed, but Watterson mentioned airport-specific issues like de-icing and said it will take time to assess.

Officials from the U.S. Department of Transportation quickly announced an intent to investigate soon after the mass cancellations, as they doubted weather was the sole reason behind the massive failure. Officials cited the lesser impacted operations at other airlines during the same timeframe.

Cantwell, who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, issued a statement, pledging an examination of whether more consumer protections were needed.

“The problems at Southwest Airlines over the last several days go beyond weather. The Committee will be looking into the causes of these disruptions and their impact on consumers,” Cantwell said. “Many airlines fail to adequately communicate with consumers during flight cancellations. Consumers deserve strong protections, including an updated consumer refund rule.”

Large amounts of passengers reported being left in the dark with little to no communication as the airline scrambled to fix the issues.

One woman from Seattle, Hope Grandon, was stranded with her boyfriend in Denver for four days and couldn’t rebook on Christmas. Two days ahead of the senate hearing, Grandon told Cantwell during a Zoom call with impacted Washingtonians.

Grandon said she was told to wait around in Denver but received very little communication and eventually decided to leave. But by that point, all the modes of transportation, planes, trains, rental cars — were already taken up. She and her boyfriend got home to Seattle, but she says they didn’t get their bags full of winter clothing and Christmas gifts for two weeks, and even now, there are disputes over reimbursements.

Gee: I want Southwest Airlines ‘more than slapped on the wrist’

In Cantwell’s opening statement, she also referenced the coach of the Rainier Beach High School basketball team stuck in Las Vegas for days, who paid thousands to feed and house the whole team in hotels — only able to come home because a local businessman offered to charter a bus.

The Rainier Beach High School boy’s Basketball team dealt with a slew of canceled flights on Southwest Airlines. The team, as well as some parents, traveled to Las Vegas on Dec. 19 for a tournament, and they were supposed to make their way back to the Puget Sound region Dec. 23, but due to cancellations, they didn’t get back until Dec. 28.

“Coach Bethea and his wife contacted Southwest; they were basically told, you’re on your own.” Cantwell then directed a request at the Southwest Chief Operating Officer, Andrew Watterson, “Coach Bethea and his wife, recently they wanted to ask one question, Mr. Watterson; they wanted me to ask you, and they know you’re a busy guy, they wanted to ask you to call them.”

Cantwell holds up a piece of paper, presumably with the coach’s number on it, and asks Watterson to call them. Watterson then issued a blunt statement at the hearing.

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

“I don’t think my constituents care if it doesn’t go to full capacity, had a glitch, or how it failed, they want to know when it will be fixed,” Cantwell said.

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Southwest Airlines: ‘We messed up’ in congressional hearing on mass cancellations