Southwest apologizes to Congress for winter meltdown

The airline has been under a microscope since the December storm, including a DOT probe into its scheduling practices.

An executive for Southwest Airlines apologized Thursday before a Senate for its holiday meltdown that resulted in thousands of canceled flights and stranded passengers, acknowledging that the airline “messed up” and that they’re working to make it up to their customers.

Southwest COO Andrew Watterson “sincerely and humbly” apologized for the situation and promised his airline is now “intensely focused on learning from this event by taking immediate mitigation efforts.” That includes a systemic review by a third-party company and internal assessments and reviews.

“Let me be clear: we messed up,” Watterson said. “In hindsight, we did not have enough winter operational resilience.”

Watterson explained that while the airline had “precanceled” some flights ahead of the storm, conditions were bad enough that they couldn’t keep up with even the modified schedule, especially at the key airports of Denver and Chicago, their two biggest hubs through which 25 percent of their crew members move. After that, cancellations mounted and that required a volume of changes to crew schedules that their scheduling technology was “overwhelemd.”

He said the airline is prioritizing “enhancements” to its crew software but defended the soundness of its flight network and said it has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in customer reimbursements so far.

But Casey Murray, president of the union for Southwest’s pilots, said the failures on display in December weren’t a fluke, but rather had been building for years.

He said “warning signs were ignored, poor performance was condoned, excuses were made, processes atrophied, core values were forgotten.” He said the organization had become a “stove-piped fiefdom that communicated vertically with little to no horizontal integration,” and called for “bold action immediately.”

Southwest has been under a microscope since December, when a winter storm sparked a cascade of internal failures that meant Southwest had to cancel a majority of its flights for nearly a week as it struggled to match crews to planes across its sprawling network.

Beyond congressional hearings like Thursday’s, the Transportation Department is also keeping a close watch on the airline to ensure it properly reimburses customers for the disruption. DOT has also announced it is separately investigating the airline for whether it scheduled flights that it knew it wouldn’t be able to staff.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) called Southwest’s meltdown an “epic failure,” but spent most of his opening remarks taking aim at the DOT and Federal Aviation Administration. He accused the Biden administration of “egregious” regulatory overreach for its probe into the airline’s scheduling practices, saying “a world in which DOT can deem an entire airline schedule ‘unrealistic’ is a world with fewer flights to smaller airports” and “less flexibility and competition for airlines, and ultimately higher prices.”

He also suggested the FAA turn its spotlight back onto itself for its own system failure that canceled thousands of flights and forced the first nationwide airplane grounding since the events of Sept. 11, 2001. He also pointed a finger at DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg for not appearing at the hearing. (The committee plans a separate hearing on the FAA’s failures next week.)