Southwest Airlines has been under fire after a December storm resulted in a meltdown of the company’s operations, leading to the cancelation of nearly 17,000 flights and stranding over 2 million passengers. On Thursday, the Chief Operating Officer, Andrew Watterson, appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee and apologized for the events. The hearing was aimed at probing disruptions that affect millions of air travelers every year and saw testimony from the President of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, Captain Casey Murray, who criticized the airline for ignoring calls to improve technology for years and for botching the recovery from the storm.
Senator Maria Cantwell, Chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, expressed frustration that Southwest did not respond to warnings from its unions that it needed to improve its crew-scheduling system before the December events. Watterson explained that the storm was worse than expected, and that the airline had underestimated the number of planes that could be deiced, which resulted in a lack of resiliency. He also stated that Southwest will be upgrading its software that suggests how to reassign crews to flights after disruptions, and has increased the ratio of employees to planes.
Captain Murray added that Southwest struggles to deal with any disruptions, even minor ones, and that the December debacle was avoidable. He criticized the airline for failing to invest enough in better technology and for not listening to frontline workers, which he claims has drifted away from the airline’s longstanding employee-centered culture.
Despite criticism from the committee, Republicans and a lobbyist for the airline industry used the hearing to argue against proposals to impose new regulations on airlines. Senator Ted Cruz stated that he had multiple conversations with senior leadership at Southwest and is confident they understand the gravity of the situation and are committed to prevent its recurrence.
Southwest led all US airlines in canceled flights last year, with over 40,000 cancellations out of a total of 210,000, according to FlightAware. The breakdown has cost the airline over $1 billion. The Senate Commerce Committee will continue its probe into disruptions in the aviation industry and aims to determine the reasons for Southwest’s operations collapse and what needs to change to prevent similar incidents from happening again.
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