WASHINGTON -- Southwest's December meltdown was front and center at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Thursday, but there was little sign that members of Congress were in agreement on steps to take to make sure it wouldn't happen again.
Southwest's CEO Bob Jordan did not attend, despite an invite, which itself brought criticism from committee chair Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state. Instead, Southwest sent Chief Operating Officer Andrew Watterson to face the music, and to issue yet another apology to passengers on behalf of the airline.
"I want to sincerely and humbly apologize to those impacted by the disruption," Watterson said. "It caused a tremendous amount of anguish, inconvenience, and missed opportunities for our customers and employees during a time of year when people want to gather with their families and avoid stressful situations."
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Watterson disclosed that changes to its staff scheduling computer systems, one of the problems at the center of the meltdown that caused the airline to cancel more than 16,700 flights from December 20 to December 29, would go online Friday.
"Tomorrow, the fix will go in, it will be live on our production system. It has already had two rounds in our test system," he said. But he cautioned that was not the sole cause of the problems, and that other issues, such as a lack of sufficient de-icing equipment in Denver and at Chicago Midway airport, would take longer to address.
"Let me be clear. We messed up," he stated. "In hindsight, we did not have enough winter operations resiliency."
And while Watterson said Southwest is doing what it can to make sure the service meltdown is not repeated, he admitted that should another meltdown occur, the hours-long wait by passengers to get through to customer service would be unavoidable.
"In an exact repeat of that situation, I apologize, there is no way we could staff that high," he said in response to questions from Illinois Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth about the long wait times callers spent on hold. "There's no amount of people we could have put in place to handle all the calls at that time because of the scale of the disruption."
He also disclosed that while Southwest has returned almost all the lost bags to affected passengers, it still has 200 bags in its possession due to a lack of identifying markings.
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Members of the committee from both parties criticized the service Southwest provided to their constituents, but the Democrats, for the most part, were harsher than the Republican members of the committee. Several Democrats suggested there was a need to re-regulate the airline industry, or at least give the Department of Transportation more powers to crack down on airlines in the face of customer complaints.
"I believe this sector needs a more effective policeman on the beat," said Cantwell. "This incident shows us we need to get serious about this."
But Ted Cruz, the ranking Republican on the committee, said that greater regulation would harm, not help, the flying public.
"As frustrating as those several days were, the question of whether Southwest has made things right will be answered by the passengers," said Cruz. "One of great changes in our lifetime is prices of flights have gone way down. The Biden administration should let the flying public vote with its feet.
"Regulatory overreach that egregious would undermine decades of progress in air travel, harming the various consumers that the DOT claims it is trying to protect," he added.
Other Democrats argued there needs to be greater oversight.
"We must crack down on carriers who have gotten away with predatory practices that treats passengers like suckers," said Duckworth.
Sen. Ed Markey, Democrat from Massachusetts, pushed Watterson to have Southwest give cash payments, rather than bonus frequent flier points, to affected flyers as additional compensation for their suffering, in addition to refunding the cost of canceled flights and reimbursing them for out-of-pocket expenses such as flights on other airlines, hotel rooms, food and rental cars. Watterson said Southwest felt the refunds, reimbursements and additional frequent flier points were sufficient compensation.
Markey also called for tougher regulation of airlines.
"Airlines failed passengers last year, over and over," he said. "Congress needs to put guard rails on the industry to stop this putting profits over people."
Among others speaking at the hearing was Casey Murray, the president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, who said that his and other unions have been warning the airline for years that its IT systems needed to be upgraded.
He said the service meltdown was a "failure epically from top to bottom."
The pilots' union characterized the operation as held together by "duct tape." Among the union's evidence is a message sent during the meltdown to a cockpit computer from the airline's dispatchers asking what crew is onboard the plane.
"Sched is asking to confirm who is operating this flight," the message read. "Pls send emp numbers to confirm. It's a mess down here."
A photograph of the message, which shows the extent of the airline's breakdown, was included in testimony the pilots' union, SWAPA, presented at the hearing.
As planes stood still at the height of the debacle, crewmembers sat stranded at multiple airports, unable to communicate with their dispatchers and schedulers.
"No updates here," another cockpit computer message to pilots read. "Scheduling is so far behind we were told we aren't allowed to walk over and talk to them."
The massive meltdown began in the wake of a large winter storm on December 20, at the beginning of one of the busiest travel windows of the year, and affected multiple carriers. But while other airlines managed to recover their schedules, Southwest's antiquated technology and manual scheduling processes could not keep up with the rate of changes as cancellations and delays rolled through the nation's flight system.
More than 16,700 Southwest flights were canceled and 2 million passengers stranded between December 20 to 29, scuttling holiday plans and leaving mountains of unclaimed baggage nationwide. Southwest CEO Bob Jordan apologized and the airline offered reimbursements for passengers' costs, along with bonus points. The Department of Transportation is investigating, including whether the airline scheduled more flights than it could handle.
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Cruz criticized that DOT investigation at Thursday's hearing as bad being bad for airline passengers.
"To avoid arbitrary fines, airlines would reduce service," Cruz said. "A world in which the Department of Transportation can declare an entire airlines' schedule as quote-unquote unrealistic is a world with fewer flights to smaller airports, less competition for airlines. And higher prices."
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