Southwest Airlines went before the Senate on Thursday, Feb. 9, to explain its “epic screwup,” as Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) described the meltdown of travel services over the Christmas holiday. The incident happened between Dec. 21 and Dec. 31 last year and caused more than 16,700 canceled flights. Andrew Watterson, the company’s chief operations officer, apologized to the panel and assured the members they were doing everything in their power to prevent future failures. But would that be enough? Republican and Democrat committee members differ in opinion on how things should be handled.
Southwest Airlines Claims It Will Take Time to Fix the Problem
Watterson told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation that they should have one system updated and ready for testing today, Feb. 10. Part of the problem that caused the cancellation disaster was the system they used for scheduling staff. Instead of having a way for pilots and other employees to text or use an app to announce their availability, they are required by contract to make a direct phone call. All those calls crashed the system, which meant no one knew which pilots were available.
“In an exact repeat of that situation, I apologize, there is no way we could staff that high,” Watterson said. “There’s no amount of people we could have put in place to handle all the calls at that time because of the scale of the disruption.” He added: “We believe our winter operations resiliency was the root cause, and that will take longer to address. So we will focus on that for the bulk of our time.”
Other witnesses, however, paint a different picture and claim that Southwest Airlines knew of the liabilities but did nothing to rectify the problem. In a written testimony for the hearing, Captain Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), reiterated a point he made during a podcast on November 7, 2022. He said:
“I fear that we are one thunderstorm, one air traffic control event, one IT router failure away from a complete meltdown. Whether that’s Thanksgiving or Christmas or New Year, that’s the precarious situation we are in.”
SWAPA contends that the airline’s failure to prepare for storms is the cause of the problem. “Over the past 15 years, the Airline has experienced nearly a dozen smaller-scale breakdowns with increasing frequency and magnitude,” Captain Murray’s testimony continued. “In addition, since 2014, SWAPA has warned the Company that technology and crew scheduling processes were failing.”
Some of the other incidents mentioned include an IT failure in 2016 “and a crew scheduling technology breakdown in October 2021.” Furthermore, Murray asserted that since 2011, the airline company has “averaged one major operational failure every 18 months.”
SWAPA estimates that there were more than 1,000 pilots on duty for more than 15 hours during that time and that over 350 aviators were stranded, “with many on continuous duty overnights awaiting schedule changes.”
During the pandemic, US carriers were given around $54 billion of taxpayer money to help airlines continue to staff, and SWAPA claims Southwest Airlines added 18 cities to capture new markets while also “receiving over $7 billion in government funding.” Watterson told reporters that the mess created in December has already cost the company $800 million pre-tax, or about $620 million after tax.
The company said about half of that loss went to reimburse passengers whose flights were canceled. The rest went toward paying for those same flyers to get accommodations, car rentals and meals, and other airlines. The employees received some of those funds as well for overtime and “gratitude pay.” However, Southwest Airlines did see a reduction in cost in one area: its fuel bill, since obviously there weren’t any planes flying anywhere.
Committee Members Disagree on Level of Oversight
President Joe Biden announced that his administration “is working to ensure airlines are held accountable.” Democratic Senators Ed Markey (MA) and Richard Blumenthal (CT) penned a letter at the time of the meltdown. “The company can afford to do right by the consumers it has harmed. Southwest should focus first on its customers stranded at airports and stuck on interminable hold,” it read.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) issued her own statement at the time, saying: “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 its impact on customers.” In her opening statement at the Senate meeting, she said, “We’re always going to have these weather events, and some of us believe they’re going to become more severe. But what we want is to have a system that is ready to address that, and to talk about the alternatives.” And then the Democrat leader said what she really wanted:
“I believe this sector needs a more effective policeman on the beat. This incident shows us we need to get serious about this.”
Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) agreed with Cantwell, saying, “We must crackdown on carriers who have gotten away with predatory practices that treats passengers like suckers.” Senator Cruz, however, disagreed, taking the stance that more regulation would not help the public. He explained:
“As frustrating as those several days were, the question of whether Southwest has made things right will be answered by the passengers. One of [the] great changes in our lifetime is prices of flights have gone way down. The Biden administration should let the flying public vote with its feet.
“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.”
Southwest Airlines said it has reimbursed about 96% of the passengers. Those who have yet to be compensated have either filed recently within the last 30 days or have submitted claims for extravagant shopping sprees and other costly and unnecessary activities and accommodations, including chartering private jets. The company also noted that there are still about 200 unclaimed bags. “We’ve returned every single bag, except there are 200 we still have that have no markings or identifying information,” Watterson said.
Do you have an opinion about this article? We’d love to hear it! If you send your comments to [email protected], we might even publish your edited remarks in our new feature, LN Readers Speak Out. Remember to include the title of the article along with your name, city, and state.
Please respect our republishing guidelines. Republication permission does not equal site endorsement. Click here.
Liberty Nation Today:
McCaul Strives to Get to the Bottom of the Afghanistan Debacle - House Foreign Affairs Committee demands secretary of state produce documents. - Read Now!
The First Domino in a Banking Burnout? – LN Radio Videocast - Stopping the spread. - Watch Now!
San Francisco: Crime and No Punishment - CNN reporters found out firsthand that San Francisco’s crime policies don’t work. - Read Now!
Are Alvin Bragg’s Dreams of Indictment Derailing? - Delays and cautions could signal the end of the whole show. - Read Now!
Lone Wolf: No one’s Joining Naomi Wolf’s Apology to Conservatives - The silence is deafening, and here’s why. - Read Now!