Southwest Airlines Faces Tough Questions From Senators

Senators grilled a top Southwest Airlines executive on Thursday over the company’s holiday meltdown, which disrupted flights for as many as two million people during one of the year’s busiest periods for air travel.

Over several hours, lawmakers on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation peppered Southwest’s chief operating officer, Andrew Watterson, with questions about how the airline’s operations buckled during the holidays and the steps it was taking to prevent a similar breakdown in the future.

“Do you understand the public’s frustration with this?” asked Senator Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington and the committee chairwoman. Senator Ted Cruz, the top Republican on the committee, called Southwest’s holiday meltdown “an epic screw up.”

The hearing comes less than two months after the holiday debacle. Like other airlines, Southwest struggled with flight delays and cancellations in the days leading into Christmas in places with wet, windy and cold weather. Southwest’s operations in Denver and Chicago, which serve as the base for about a quarter of the airline’s flight crews, were particularly hard hit.

As the bad weather moved east, communication between the airline’s central staff and its outposts deteriorated, resulting in last-minute cancellations. That compounded the need to move displaced flight crews. By Dec. 26, the airline had grown so overwhelmed by the need to reassign crews and other challenges that it preemptively canceled about two-thirds of its flights for several days to reset its network. All told, Southwest canceled 16,700 flights in the last 11 days of December.

During the hearing on Thursday, Mr. Watterson acknowledged that the airline had “messed up” and said that Southwest was committed to making amends to its customers and improving its operations. The airline has provided two million customers with about $300 in travel credits, refunded those with canceled flights and processed all but a small share of requests for reimbursement for expenses like hotel stays and rental cars. The airline also plans to upgrade its crew scheduling software on Friday and make other changes, he said.

“We are intensely focused on reducing the risk of repeating the operational disruption we had in December, and repairing the trust our company has had and earned over our 52-year history,” he said.

The airline said last month that it expected the episode would cost it at least $1.1 billion in lost revenue and reimbursements. Ticket sales also suffered in January and February, though Southwest’s executives said at the time that they were optimistic about bookings in March and beyond based on early sales.

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