Infrastructure

Senate grills Southwest Airlines COO on ignoring 'meltdown' warnings

Southwest pilots say they sounded the alarm on the airline's system issues, but they were ignored.

Senate grills Southwest Airlines COO on ignoring 'meltdown' warnings
AP

The chief operating officer for Southwest Airlines took the uncomfortable middle seat Thursday — but this one in front of Congress, hearing one travel nightmare after another.

"They ended up stranded in Las Vegas for five days, spending more than $10,000 on hotels and food and with no idea how they might get back home," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, (D) Washington.

The hearing follows a complete Southwest meltdown in December. With more than 16,000 canceled flights, tens of thousands of passengers were going nowhere fast in the middle of the holiday travel rush.

"Let me be clear; we messed up. And I would like to explain to you how we messed up," said COO Andrew Watterson. "In hindsight, we did not have enough winter operations resiliency."

Southwest says as winter storms moved in to places like Denver and Chicago, the airline couldn't keep pace, leading to a wave of cascading cancellations that overwhelmed the system that keeps track of flight crews.

Southwest to testify before US Senate after mass cancelations
Southwest to testify before US Senate after mass cancelations

Southwest to testify before US Senate after mass cancelations

Southwest's Chief Operating Officer will testify before the Senate committee on Thursday Feb. 9.

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"The disruption changed from a weather event that all airlines experienced to a crew event that was unique to us," Watterson said.

The Southwest Pilots Union says the meltdown should not have been a surprise.

"For years, our pilots have been sounding the alarm about Southwest's inadequate crew scheduling technology and outdated operational processes, " said Capt. Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association.

Sen. Ed Markey, (D) Massachusetts, grilled Southwest over those warnings he says were ignored.

"Because you did not listen to those warnings, catastrophic conditions were created for passengers by the hundreds of thousands all across our country," Sen. Markey said.

Southwest promises to do better, saying it is spending millions of dollars to upgrade software systems and conduct a top-to-bottom review.

"We need to make sure our operational resiliency and technology are strengthened for future extreme weather events, no matter how unprecedented," Watterson said. "We owe that to our customers and to our employees."

Senators want Southwest to prevent similar meltdowns from ever happening again. 

"The question of whether Southwest has sufficiently made things right will ultimately be answered by the flying public," said Sen. Ted Cruz, (R) Texas.

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Correction: an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Andrew Watterson as Southwest Airlines’ chief executive officer. Watterson is the chief operating officer.