WASHINGTON (AP) — In a Senate hearing, a top Southwest Airlines executive apologized for the carrier’s winter meltdown, which separated thousands of flyers from their families, wedding ceremonies, and even medications in the days after Christmas.
“I want to sincerely and humbly apologise to those who have been affected by the disruption, which has caused a tremendous amount of anguish, inconvenience, and missed opportunities for our customers and employees,” Southwest Chief Operating Officer Andrew Watterson told the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on Thursday.
The Dallas-based airline has been under intense scrutiny after cancelling more than 16,000 flights across much of the country during late December’s frigid weather, which disrupted services among the major airlines but none as severely as Southwest’s.
Watterson promised a variety of measures to make things right with fliers and prevent a future weather-related breakdown while being grilled by bipartisan lawmakers. These included scheduling software updates, which Watterson said would go into effect Friday, as well as ongoing assessments and funding to address icing issues at airports prone to freezing temperatures.
Some lawmakers pressed Watterson to change Southwest’s policies towards holiday-season customers.
Sen. Ed Markey said that instead of the frequent-flier points offered by Southwest to compensate for inconveniences and financial losses, affected customers should be offered cash hardship payments. In addition to refunding those passengers’ tickets, the airline has offered points worth $300 towards future bookings, according to Watterson.
“The point system you want to use will be useless,” Markey countered. “It’s a meaningless gesture.”
Watterson was also pressed by the Massachusetts Democrat to commit to paying for customers’ flights if they chose to fly with other airlines.
Watterson declined both proposals, saying, “If they want to fly somebody else, that’s their choice.” “We will not pay them cash to pay to another airline unless it is for reimbursement of a flight they took during the disruption,” he later added.
The crash has focused attention on Southwest’s flight routing system and the technology that powers it, which differs from that of other major carriers. Southwest’s “point to point” strategy entails planes flying consecutive routes rather than operating around a series of hubs. According to experts, this increases the risk of disruptions spreading throughout the system when certain flights and crews are unable to reach their destinations.
Watterson responded to system criticism on Thursday, saying, “We’re increasing our IT spend faster than our company is growing.” He stated that Southwest is investing $1.3 billion in technology upgrades this year, a 25% increase from 2019, before the onset of pandemic-related costs.
Captain Casey A. Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, testified at the hearing, saying the carrier’s leadership failed to adequately prepare for the winter storm or heed frontline workers’ warnings. He also charged executives with allowing the airline to “drift away from an employee-centered culture” over time.
In response to allegations that Southwest prioritised shareholders over customers, Watterson stated that the company recently reinstated its quarterly dividend only after funding “top industry wages” for employees, aircraft purchases, IT department needs, and debt repayments.
Late last month, the Transportation Department announced an investigation into Southwest, including whether company executives scheduled an unrealistic volume of flights, “which under federal law is considered an unfair and deceptive practise.” The airline has stated that it will cooperate with all investigations.
The hearing on Thursday also featured opposing views on the role of government in regulating commercial aviation and addressing affordability concerns. Airline ticket prices have risen over the last year and have remained unusually high even during this winter’s travel chaos. According to federal data, airfares in December 2022 were more than 28% higher on average than in December 2021.
“Some Democrats on this committee were proposing that the government step in with overly complex, anticompetitive, and frankly unnecessary regulations that would collectively result in making flying unaffordable for many Americans,” said Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Other witnesses on Thursday argued for greater consumer choice through other means. The industry, according to Paul Hudson, president of the Flyers Rights passenger advocacy group, is a “oligopoly” comprised of four major airlines, and he criticises the government’s laissez-faire approach to deregulation.
According to Clifford Winston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, privatising major metropolitan airports in the United States could help open the door for more international carriers to serve domestic passengers while also easing congestion.
“If you want to reduce the likelihood of mistakes and allow people to correct their mistakes, they must be held accountable,” Winston said. “More competition will make that possible.”