Southwest apologizes for holiday chaos in Senate hearing

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Passengers check in for a Southwest Airlines Co. flight inside Terminal 1 at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in Los Angeles, California, on August 10, 2022.

Patrick T. Fallon | AFP | Getty Images

Southwest Airlines‘ chief operations officer is facing questions from a Senate panel Thursday over the carrier’s December meltdown that stranded thousands of passengers over the holidays.

Andrew Watterson apologized for the travel chaos before the Senate Commerce Committee. The president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, Casey Murray, is also testifying and told the panel that the carrier ignored warning signs about its operation.

Southwest has said it canceled more than 16,700 flights between Dec. 21 and Dec. 31. The issues started with severe winter weather around the U.S., but the carrier lacked the technology to keep pace with the numerous flight changes, prompting the airline to scrap most of its schedule for several days to reset its operation.

The chaos pushed Southwest to a loss in the last quarter, costing it $800 million in pretax earnings.

The incident capped a year of chaotic travel for many passengers as airlines struggled to ramp up to meet a rebound in demand. Pressure on the industry has grown over the last year while some lawmakers and the Biden administration seek stronger consumer protection.

Southwest’s pilots union, which is in contract negotiations with the company, as well as the flight attendants’ union, had warned about scheduling problems for years prior to December’s chaos.

“Warning signs were ignored. Poor performance was condoned. Excuses were made. Processes atrophied. Core values were forgotten,” Murray said in prepared testimony.

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Southwest’s COO is set to defend technology improvements since the debacle in December and others in the works. Its executives have said its crew rescheduling software wasn’t designed to handle so many cancellations that occurred in the past, but its provider, General Electric said it has delivered updates to Southwest that the airline is testing.

“Let me be clear: we messed up. In hindsight, we did not have enough winter operational resilience,” Watterson said in prepared ten testimony. Southwest said CEO Bob Jordan had a scheduling conflict and couldn’t attend.

Thursday marked the second time in just over a year that an airline executive had to answer to the Senate committee over a host of flight delays. In December 2021, leaders of the largest U.S. carriers were questioned about flight disruptions and staffing shortfalls after receiving $54 billion in taxpayer payroll support during the pandemic that required them to keep paying staff.

Airline executives have blamed some of the flight disruptions of the past year on inadequate staffing and funding for the Federal Aviation Administration.

The hearing began at 10 a.m. ET, but a Senate briefing on the Chinese balloon that the U.S. shot down last weekend will likely delay questioning.

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