Feb. 9—Southwest Airlines Chief Operating Officer Andrew Watterson repeatedly apologized Thursday for the December meltdown that left more than 16,000 flights canceled, affecting more than 2 million customers and stranding thousands of flyers in airports for days.
Watterson said technical fixes for the airline's glitchy crew-scheduling software will go into effect this week, but offered no timeline for when upgrades to its winter operations systems, like more de-icing equipment, would be in place.
"Let me be clear, we messed up," Watterson told the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. "I want to sincerely and humbly apologize to those impacted by the disruption."
In December, a cascade of flight cancellations, initially caused by a winter storm, was compounded by the airline's inability to reroute planes and crew. Ultimately, Southwest Airlines was forced to scrap several days of its flying schedule in order to reset operations.
"Do you understand the public's frustration with this?" asked Sen. Maria Cantwell, D- Wash., chair of the committee, calling it "an airline debacle of enormous proportions."
Cantwell also chided Southwest CEO Bob Jordan, who declined to appear before the committee.
She talked about the Rainier Beach High School boys basketball team, which was stranded for days in Las Vegas after its flight home from a tournament was canceled.
Told by Southwest they "were essentially on their own," the two dozen players and parents spent $10,000 on food and hotels, Cantwell said, before ultimately chartering a bus to drive back to Seattle.
"They didn't know how to communicate to anyone to answer their questions," Cantwell said.
Watterson said the airline has worked to reimburse travelers for expenses like hotel rooms and rental cars, and has offered every affected passenger 25,000 frequent-flyer miles, although he declined, under questioning, to offer passengers the cash equivalent.
He said the company plans to spend $1.3 billion on technology upgrades this year, 25% more than in 2019. But, he said, it won't know until next month the results of a review of winter operations and the specific upgrades that will be needed.
"Other airlines were able to handle the winter weather and we were not," he said. "We need more infrastructure at airports for de-icing. We need more de-icing trucks, we need new technology systems with de-icing, we need to weatherize our ground support equipment."
De-icing equipment is generally the responsibility of airlines, not airports.
Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, blamed the airline's leadership and said that it struggles to manage nearly any disruption.
"The conditions were set years ago when Southwest leaders allowed the airline to drift away from an employee-centered culture," Murray said. "Instead, Southwest leaders focused on making the airline the darling of the investment community."
Hope Grandon, of Seattle, spent Christmas in the Denver airport after her flight back home was canceled. Then a rebooked flight was canceled. Then more rebooked flights were canceled.
"We would go weeks at a time without anything beyond a form letter response," Grandon said Tuesday during a virtual roundtable organized by Cantwell's office. "We found our best source of information in other impacted travelers on online messaging boards and social media when we should have been able to rely on Southwest."
Other regional travelers also chimed in during the roundtable event.
Rob Perkins, of Vancouver, Washington, tried to fly his daughter and her partner home for Christmas, from Southern California. They made it to Sacramento, but had to backtrack after their connecting flight was canceled and no others were available. The family opened Christmas presents over Zoom.
Veronica Gutierrez, of Mount Vernon, was trying to fly her son home for Christmas. He's in the U.S. Army, based in Georgia. He made it as far as California before a wave of flight cancellations stopped his trip, forcing him to return to Georgia, never reaching home.
(c)2023 The Seattle Times
Visit The Seattle Times at www.seattletimes.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.