As Southwest Airlines struggles to get back on track after cancelling thousands of flights that left countless holiday travelers stranded throughout the country, federal officials say that they intend to scrutinize the airline’s actions.
“While Southwest continues to operate roughly one third of its schedule for Thursday, Dec. 29, we plan to return to normal operations with minimal disruptions on Friday, Dec. 30,” the airline announced in a statement on Thursday. “We are encouraged by the progress we’ve made to realign Crew, their schedules, and our fleet. With another holiday weekend full of important connections for our valued Customers and Employees, we are eager to return to a state of normalcy.”
The airline — whose CEO Bob Jordan issued a video apology and update on Tuesday — continued to express remorse.
“We know even our deepest apologies — to our Customers, to our Employees, and to all affected through this disruption — only go so far,” the statement said, directing customers to a page on the airline’s website for refund and reimbursement requests. “We have much work ahead of us, including investing in new solutions to manage wide-scale disruptions. We aim to serve our Customers and Employees with our legendary levels of Southwest Hospitality and reliability again very soon.”
Also on Thursday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg sent a letter to Jordan, telling the CEO that the “level of disruption Southwest customers have experienced over the Christmas holiday and into the New Year is unacceptable” and pledging to hold the airline to its promise to compensate waylaid passengers.
The secretary emphasized that the “four priorities” for Southwest should be getting stranded passengers to their destinations, reimbursing them for costs or providing food and lodging, refunding the costs of cancelled tickets, and returning baggage.
Buttigieg said that the Department of Transportation “will use the fullest extent of its investigative and enforcement powers” to hold Southwest accountable for honoring its pledges to reimburse passengers for the reasonable costs of alternate transportation and issue prompt refunds for the costs of cancelled tickets.
Buttigieg also told Jordan that the cost of the cancellations and delays is, to many families, immeasurable.
“No amount of financial compensation can fully make up for passengers who missed moments with their families that they can never get back — Christmas, birthdays, weddings, and other special events,” he said in the letter. “That’s why it is so critical for Southwest to begin by reimbursing passengers for those costs that can be measured in dollars and cents.”
Trouble began at the start of Christmas weekend, when a surge of winter storms rocked the country on Friday, Dec. 23. Around 5,100 flights within the U.S., or coming in or out of the country, were cancelled that day, and some 8,400 were delayed.
But while airlines such as Delta, American Airlines, and United were able to resume operations at a somewhat normal level by within days, Southwest was not. The cascade of Southwest’s problems can be traced to its “point-to-point” model, in which planes travel between smaller cities and regions without stopping at a major hub — a considerable draw for some travelers looking to avoid making an extra stop. However, this method places airplane crews in various points throughout the country, which limits the ways in which Southwest can reschedule flights.
Most airlines use a “hub and spoke” system, which often requires planes to stop in major cities or metropolitan areas before passengers can move on to smaller or more remote destinations. While this system usually requires an intermediate stop, it allows airlines to recover from delays — weather-related or otherwise — more quickly.
In his video, Jordan described the airline as having “built our flight schedule around communities, not hubs,” and that its functionality relied upon everyone “remaining in motion to where they’re planned to go.” The weather put much of the airline’s workforce “out of position,” Jordan explained.
As of Thursday, Southwest had cancelled 2,361 flights, accounting for more than 56% of flights cancelled worldwide across all airlines.
As the legacy low-cost carrier’s troubles appeared to deepen as the week after Christmas wore on, Buttigieg took to national media to assure frustrated travelers that his office intends to get to the bottom of the chaos — and take steps to prevent it from happening again.
“Now we’ve never seen a situation, at least not on my watch, with this volume of disruptions so this is going to take an extraordinary level of effort by Southwest and we will mount an extraordinary effort to make sure that they’re meeting their obligations,” Buttigieg said Wednesday during an appearance on Good Morning America.
“I’ve made clear that our department will be holding them accountable for their responsibilities to customers both to get them through this situation and to make sure that this can’t happen again,” he told CNN the previous day.
The Department of Transportion slammed Southwest in a statement on Wednesday and called for the airline company to provide for its passengers.
“The rate of cancellations and delays on Southwest Airlines is unacceptable and dramatically higher than other U.S. carriers,” Buttigieg said in the statement. “This afternoon, Secretary Buttigieg spoke with the CEO of Southwest Airlines and conveyed that he expects the airline to live up to the commitments it has made to passengers, including providing meal vouchers, refunds, and hotel accommodations for those experiencing significant delays or cancellations that came about as a result of Southwest’s decisions and actions. Southwest, as all airlines, is also obligated to provide a cash refund for passengers whose flights were canceled and decided not to travel.”
The statement noted that union leaders representing Southwest’s flight attendants and pilots told Buttigieg that many flight attendants and pilots were also stranded, sleeping on cots or booking their own hotel rooms.
Buttigieg “also conveyed to Southwest’s CEO that he expects Southwest to do right by their pilots and flight attendants — and all their workers —in these situations,” the statement says.
The Transportation Department “will take action to hold Southwest accountable if it fails to fulfill its obligations and we will stay engaged with Southwest Airlines to make sure the airline does not allow a situation like this to happen again,” the statement added.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, said in a statement Wednesday that Southwest could potentially be the target of an investigation.
“The problems at Southwest Airlines over the last several days go beyond weather,” Cantwell said. “The Committee will be looking into the causes of these disruptions and its impact to consumers. Many airlines fail to adequately communicate with consumers during flight cancellations. Consumers deserve strong protections, including an updated consumer refund rule.”
Read the letter from Buttigieg to Jordan here.
Editor’s note: this story was updated to include the Dec. 29, 2022 letter from Buttigieg to Jordan.
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