‘We messed up’ in holiday travel meltdown, Southwest Airlines executive tells Cantwell-led Senate panel
Feb. 9, 2023 Updated Thu., Feb. 9, 2023 at 9:54 p.m.
WASHINGTON – A Southwest Airlines executive apologized Thursday during a Senate hearing for the December meltdown that disrupted holiday travel for some 2 million people.
Senators continued to disagree on whether the company had already done enough to make its customers whole.
Andrew Watterson, Southwest’s chief operating officer, told members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee the airline would implement a fix on Friday to outdated scheduling software that turned a winter storm into what the president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association called a “historic” debacle. While other airlines restored service soon after the weather cleared, Southwest struggled for days to assign crew members to airplanes.
“Let me be clear: We messed up,” Watterson said, explaining Southwest didn’t have enough de-icing equipment and other infrastructure needed to keep planes flying in the extreme cold. The problem was compounded, he said, when the company’s crew scheduling software couldn’t keep up with the weather-related delays and cancellations.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat who leads the panel, told Watterson the story of the Rainier Beach High School basketball team, which was scheduled to fly home to Seattle on Dec. 23 from a tournament in Las Vegas on one of the more than 16,000 flights Southwest canceled in December. Stuck in Nevada for five days, the coach had to pay more than $10,000 out of pocket for his team’s food and lodging before he was eventually reimbursed.
“A lot of people suffered a lot because of this,” Cantwell told Watterson. “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?”
The president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, Casey Murray, said his organization had warned Southwest for years that its outdated scheduling system could cause exactly the kind of problems that occurred in December.
“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and Southwest has a history of repetition,” Murray said. “Unfortunately, despite many opportunities, Southwest Airlines did not listen to its pilots and frontline employees who saw this meltdown coming.”
Senators from both parties criticized Southwest for its failures, but while Democrats called for tougher oversight and pushed the company to pay cash compensation to stranded travelers, Republicans argued more government involvement would only drive up airfares.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the top Republican on the committee, called himself “a big fan” of Southwest, and said that after speaking with senior leaders of the Dallas-based airline, “I’m confident they understand it was an epic screw-up.”
“As frustrating as those several days were, the question of whether Southwest has sufficiently made things right will ultimately be answered by the flying public,” Cruz said. “It will be answered by customers choosing whether or not to book a flight on Southwest.”
Sharon Pinkerton, a lobbyist for the industry group Airlines for America, warned that Congress enacting the kind of airline regulations that exist in the European Union “would be a disaster.”
“You all are too young to remember this, but it used to be that only the rich could fly,” Pinkerton said. “There’s no doubt that deregulation has democratized air travel.”
Murray, of the pilots’ association, and Paul Hudson, president of the public interest group Flyers Rights, accused Southwest of prioritizing its shareholders over its employees and customers, pointing out that Southwest in January became the first airline to resume paying stock dividends since the government bailed them out during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Under the current system, airlines are actually incentivized to provide bad service,” Hudson said, urging lawmakers to revisit a 1978 law that deregulated the airline industry. “Good service costs money and bad service saves money.”
The quarterly dividend paid to shareholders at the end of January totals about $428 million, according to Southwest. Over the course of a year, total dividend payments would exceed the $1.3 billion Watterson said the company plans to spend on maintaining and upgrading its technology.
In February 2022, Southwest’s board approved a raise for CEO Bob Jordan, who could earn $9 million in total annual compensation, The Dallas Morning News reported.
This year, Cantwell’s committee will need to pass a bill to reauthorize funding for the Federal Aviation Administration. Thursday’s hearing signaled the panel could include airline regulations in that legislation, but she and Cruz will likely need to agree on specifics before the committee could advance the bill.
“I do believe this sector needs a more effective policemen on the beat,” Cantwell said. “They need someone over at the Department of Transportation who is going to get the job done.”
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