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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Kyle Arnold

Senate calls on Southwest Airlines operations chief to answer for holiday meltdown

Southwest Airlines chief operating officer Andrew Watterson is slated to testify at a U.S. Senate Committee hearing next week amid calls for the carrier to answer for December’s holiday meltdown when it canceled 16,700 flights.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee will hold the hearing Feb. 9, on “strengthening airline operations and consumer protections.” It will hear from Watterson, Southwest Airlines Pilots Association President Casey Murray and airline industry and consumer protection experts.

“This hearing will review the causes and impacts of recent air travel disruptions as well as consumer impacts to the U.S. flying public,” the committee said in announcing the hearing. “For instance, Southwest Airlines’ operational meltdown in December 2022 left millions of people stranded during the holidays.”

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines is still investigating the factors behind December’s meltdown in which crew rescheduling software couldn’t keep up with a large number of delays and cancellations following a snowstorm that hit key airports in Denver and Chicago. After three days of trying to piece the network back together, Southwest was forced to cancel two-thirds of its flights from Dec. 27 to 29 so it could “reset” operations on Dec. 30.

But by then, the holiday travel season had turned into a nightmare for millions of passengers. The ordeal cost Southwest $800 million in the fourth quarter in lost revenue, refunds and reimbursements and the company said it will take another hit in the first quarter of up to $350 million from passengers booking away to other airlines.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat who chairs the Senate committee, called for the committee to look at outages amid the worst of the problems in December.

Southwest has faced other pressure from Washington, including an inquiry from the U.S. Department of Transportation into whether the carrier used “deceptive practices” by overscheduling flights it couldn’t realistically operate.

The holiday struggles have led to new calls for accountability and regulation on airlines to protect consumers, including a new bill called the “Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights and Forbidding Airlines from Imposing Ridiculous (FAIR) Fees Act” from Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut. That bill would limit fees for things like checked bags, seat selection and ticket changes as well as require refunds for canceled flights and up to $1,350 for overbooked passengers.

“Our nation’s largest airlines can’t even guarantee consumers that their flights won’t be delayed or canceled, that their luggage won’t be lost, or that they won’t get stranded at the gate because of overbooking,” Markey said in a statement on Monday. “The status quo won’t fly any longer.”

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is also a minority member of the committee holding the hearing.

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