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Southwest faces lingering questions after winter storm meltdown

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Southwest Airlines restored its flight schedule on Friday, ending a week of mass cancellations that disrupted vacation plans for millions of travelers.

After canceling about two-thirds of its flights since the holiday weekend began, Southwest canceled just 1% of its Friday trips, according to flight tracking website FlightAware.

But questions remain about how quickly Southwest can win back customers, 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 refunds

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

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

Southwest executives said on Thursday it would take several weeks to process orders. The airline has launched a page for travelers to request refunds and refunds, and another to help thousands of passengers find their lost luggage.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg pressed Southwest to promptly reimburse travelers, warning he would use his authority to levy fines against the airline if it didn’t get customers back.

“No amount of financial compensation can fully compensate passengers who have lost moments with their families that they will never be able to recover – Christmas, birthdays, weddings and other special events,” Buttigieg wrote in a letter to Jordan on Thursday.

“That’s why it’s so important for Southwest to start by reimbursing passengers for costs that can be measured in dollars and cents.”

Buttigieg said customers should submit a complaint to your department if Southwest denies compensation.

An unprecedented collapse

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 direct them to the correct plane. Southwest had to cancel nearly two-thirds of its trips to get the situation under control.

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

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

“It was really the scope of the issues that were trying to be resolved, just to move crews, keep the airline moving,” Jordan said.

Southwest officials had warned for years that the airline was prioritizing short-term profits and investor rewards over upgrading its aging infrastructure.

Southwest disbursed $5.6 billion in share repurchases in the three years leading up to the pandemic and was the first major airline to reinstate its dividend when restrictions associated with federal COVID-19 relief expired.

“Years later, this meltdown came about because Southwest management lost touch with its employees and became fixated on accounting metrics, stock buybacks, and institutional investors,” wrote Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, in an op-ed. on Friday.

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

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

Customers reported not being able to contact Southwest representatives for days to reschedule their flight or locate their luggage.

Things only got worse because Southwest doesn’t have any interline agreements with its competitors. These deals, which are struck between several major airlines, would have allowed Southwest travelers to rebook on another airline with relative ease.

How will Washington respond?

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

But lawmakers have expressed no interest in passing legislation to deal with the collapse and customer complaints. Instead, they are pushing Buttigieg to crack down on Southwest and other carriers using existing laws.

Representative Ro Khanna (D-California) criticized Buttigieg on Twitter on Thursday, arguing that the meltdown could have been avoided if the secretary had instituted stricter rules that would have resulted in fines if airlines overbooked 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 “did not pursue the worst offenders,” referring to the big four carriers.

A spokesman for the Department of Transport said the airlines had agreed to provide free rebooking and pay for food and accommodation in the event of a cancellation, after Buttigieg urged them to improve their customer service plans in August.

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

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

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

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

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