Southwest faces lingering questions after winter storm meltdown

Southwest Airlines restored its flight schedule on Friday, ending a weeklong stretch of mass cancellations that disrupted millions of travelers’ holiday plans.

After canceling roughly two-thirds of its flights since the start of the long holiday weekend, Southwest canceled just 1 percent of its Friday trips, according to flight tracking website FlightAware. 

But questions remain about how quickly Southwest can make customers whole, whether it can prevent this kind of meltdown from happening again and how lawmakers and regulators in the nation’s capital will respond to the fiasco. 

Southwest promises reimbursements 

Southwest CEO Bob Jordan said Friday that the airline will cover stranded travelers’ unexpected costs, a key sticking point for enraged customers. 

“We’ll be looking at and taking care of things like rental cars, hotel rooms, meals, booking customers on other airlines, so that will all be part of what we’re covering here as we reimburse our customers and make good on this issue,” Jordan said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”  

Southwest executives said Thursday that it will take several weeks to process requests. The airline launched a page for travelers to ask for refunds and reimbursements, and another to help thousands of passengers find their lost luggage. 

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has pressured Southwest to promptly reimburse travelers, warning that he would use his authority to levy fines against the airline if it doesn’t make customers whole. 

“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,” Buttigieg wrote in a letter to Jordan Thursday.  

“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.” 

Buttigieg said that customers should submit a complaint to his department if Southwest denies them compensation. 

An unprecedented meltdown 

While last week’s winter storms forced other airlines to cancel a relatively small number of flights, they completely derailed Southwest’s antiquated scheduling system, which employees say has needed an overhaul for years.  

At the height of the crisis, Southwest was unable to locate many of its pilots and flight attendants, let alone route them to the correct plane. Southwest had to cancel nearly two-thirds of its trips to get the situation under control. 

“I’ve been around the business for close to half a century, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Rob Britton, a former American Airlines executive who teaches crisis management at Georgetown University. “We’ve seen other outages and debacles, but all of those things pale in comparison to this absolute mess.” 

Southwest’s Jordan said Friday that the airline faced worse weather impacts than its competitors — the winter storm hit two of its largest hubs — but acknowledged that Southwest needed to make more investments in its operations.  

“It really was the scope of the problems attempting to be solved, just to move crews around, keep the airline moving,” Jordan said.  

Southwest employees warned for years that the airline was prioritizing short-term profits and investor rewards instead of updating its aging infrastructure.  

Southwest shelled out $5.6 billion on stock buybacks in the three years leading up to the pandemic and was the first major airline to reinstate its dividend when restrictions attached to federal COVID-19 relief expired.  

“Years in the making, this meltdown happened because Southwest’s management lost touch with its employees and became fixated on accounting metrics, stock buybacks and institutional investors,” Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, wrote in an opinion piece Friday. 

Murray predicted in November that Southwest was “one IT router failure away from a complete meltdown” during a busy travel period such as Christmas. He added that the airline should “release a clear plan and timeline for replacing Southwest’s IT infrastructure and obsolete crew-scheduling systems.” 

Other experts have blamed Southwest’s point-to-point system, which allows the airline to offer more direct flights than its competitors but can strand crew members when things go wrong. 

Customers reported being unable to reach Southwest representatives for days to reschedule their flight or locate their luggage.  

Things were only made worse because Southwest does not have any interline agreements with its competitors. Those deals, which are struck between several of the top carriers, would have allowed Southwest travelers to rebook their flight on another airline with relative ease. 

How will Washington respond? 

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are promising to investigate Southwest, which received more than $7 billion in federal aid from Congress to keep its employees on the payroll and operations intact during the pandemic.  

But lawmakers haven’t expressed interest in passing legislation to address the meltdown and ensuing customer complaints. Instead, they’re putting pressure on Buttigieg to crack down on Southwest and other carriers using laws already on the books. 

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) criticized Buttigieg on Twitter Thursday, arguing that the meltdown could have been avoided if the secretary had instituted tougher rules that would result in fines if airlines overbooked flights or canceled flights at the last minute.  

While Buttigieg issued record fines against Frontier Airlines and a handful of foreign carriers in November for violating refund rules, Khanna tweeted that the penalties were “inadequate” and “didn’t go after the worst offenders,” referring to the big four carriers. 

A Transportation Department spokesperson said that airlines agreed to provide free rebooking and pay for food and lodging in the case of cancellations after Buttigieg urged them to improve their customer service plans in August.   

“The department will hold Southwest Airlines accountable, including pursuing fines against the carrier if there is evidence that the carrier has failed to meet its legal obligations,” the spokesperson said.

All eyes are on Buttigieg’s proposed airline refund rule that would require airlines to give timely cash refunds to customers when their flight is canceled or significantly delayed.  

Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) called for the rule to require covering secondary costs such as travel, lodging and food. A group of 34 bipartisan state attorneys general said it should include penalties for airlines that sell tickets without having adequate staffing.  

The department is beginning the process of reading through thousands of comments on the rule after the comment period expired on Dec. 16.  

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