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Senate panel hearing targeted Southwest Airlines holiday travel meltdown

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A top executive with Southwest Airlines endured a grilling on Capitol Hill yesterday.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Yeah, a hearing focused on the operational meltdown in December that screwed up holiday plans for hundreds of thousands of people. The Senate Commerce Committee pointed questions about Southwest's disastrous performance. And lawmakers are considering strengthening consumer protections for air travelers.

FADEL: NPR's transportation correspondent, David Schaper, is covering this story.

Good morning, David.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So how did senators talk about the meltdown in yesterday's hearing?

SCHAPER: Well, there was a lot of indignation and frustration. It was on full display, even among longtime fans and customers of Southwest Airlines, like Republican Ted Cruz of Southwest's home state of Texas.

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TED CRUZ: It was an epic screw-up.

SCHAPER: Nevada Democrat Jacky Rosen called it an unmitigated disaster. Illinois's Tammy Duckworth ripped into Southwest and other airlines for, as she puts it, predatory practices that treat customers like suckers. And on and on it went, with senators from both parties asking pointed questions about how this fiasco happened and what's being done to make sure it doesn't happen again.

FADEL: Epic screw-up, unmitigated disasters, predatory practices. I mean, how did Southwest respond?

SCHAPER: Well, Chief Operating Officer Andrew Watterson really responded the only way he could. He apologized, and then he admitted that the airline messed up.

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ANDREW WATTERSON: In hindsight, we did not have enough winter operations resiliency, from where and how we de-ice aircraft to the cold resiliency of our ground support equipment and infrastructure.

SCHAPER: Waterson added that the failure of antiquated crew scheduling systems and other technology, staffing and communications issues compounded problems. He says the airline is investing more than a billion dollars in technology and equipment upgrades to make sure this doesn't happen again. But this wasn't a one-time thing for Southwest. They've had a few other operational meltdowns in recent years. Casey Murray, the president of the Southwest pilots union, told the committee that pilots have been sounding the alarm, but those warnings were ignored.

CASEY MURRAY: Our recent history and the data shows a pattern of increasingly disruptive operational failures, misprioritization of resources and, worst of all, a hollow leveraging of our culture to cover up poor management decisions.

FADEL: Wow. So what kind of consumer protections are lawmakers considering in the wake of all this?

SCHAPER: Well, consumer advocates would like compensation for significant flight delays, as is the case in Europe, mandatory reimbursement for meals, lodging and other expenses that are incurred because of delays and cancellations. Even reciprocity between the airlines - so if one airline cancels your flight, they would put you on another airline for free. You know, you've got to remember that several other airlines have had significant problems with delays and cancellations in the last couple of years as they tried to recover from the pandemic. Paul Hudson brought that up. He's with the group FlyersRights.

PAUL HUDSON: Under the current system, airlines are actually incentivized to provide bad service. Good service costs money, and bad service saves money. And that money can be used for dividends, stock buybacks and executive compensation.

SCHAPER: But, you know, airline industry representatives say that such further regulations will only drive up fares. It would hurt competition and could reduce airline service in some parts of the country. And many Republicans who were on the panel tended to agree, saying that if customers have a problem with the airlines, they should just, you know, fly a different airline.

FADEL: NPR's David Schaper.

Thank you so much, David.

SCHAPER: My pleasure, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.