A group of 15 U.S. senators on Thursday demanded answers from Southwest Airlines' CEO regarding the company's management of the disastrous 2022 holiday season, when thousands of travelers were stranded in airports amid nearly 16,000 flight cancelations.
"The mass flight cancellations at Southwest Airlines... during the last week of December ruined the holidays for tens of thousands of travelers, stranding them at gates without their bags and forcing them to miss celebrations with families and friends. Although winter storm Elliott disrupted flights across the country, every other airline operating in the United States managed to return to a regular flight schedule shortly thereafter—except Southwest," the senators wrote in a letter led by Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) to company CEO Robert Jordan. "Southwest must take all necessary steps to ensure that this debacle never happens again."
"In total, Southwest canceled nearly 16,000 flights during this period. As you have rightfully acknowledged, Southwest simply failed its customers," wrote the lawmakers, who include 14 Democrats and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). "For consumers across the country, this failure was more than a headache—it was a nightmare."
The letter continues:
Travelers were stranded across the country for days at a time, forced to spend hours on hold with Southwest customer service representatives or in line at Southwest service desks at the airport. Just as the storm set off a chain reaction of problems for Southwest, these cancellations inevitably led to bad consequences for travelers who could not return to their loved ones over the holidays, lacked access to critical medicine and other personal items in their misplaced bags, or were forced to miss days at work.
Your employees—flight attendants, pilots, ground workers, customer service representatives, dispatchers, ramp workers, and others—were also victims. Some found themselves stranded across the country. Others had to work mandatory overtime in frigid temperatures or spent countless hours seeking impossible-to-find solutions to help furious customers find their way home.
The senators noted that "based on initial comments from Southwest executives and news reports, the main cause of Southwest's meltdown appears to be legacy software that Southwest uses to coordinate its crews and planes."
"Yet, Southwest has long known that its software was outdated and the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association had warned that such a debacle was inevitable unless Southwest invested in new scheduling systems," the lawmakers wrote. "Instead of making those investments, Southwest distributed over $1.8 billion in dividends to its shareholders and bought back over $11 billion in its shares between 2011 and 2020. And just last month, Southwest announced that it would issue a $428 million dividend in the first quarter of this year—the first airline to announce a dividend since the start of the pandemic."
To "better understand the causes of these cancellations and ensure a breakdown of this magnitude never happens again," the senators request answers to questions, including:
- Why Southwest was unable to return to a normal flight schedule after winter storm Elliott;
- Why Southwest's pilot and flight attendant scheduling software was unable to efficiently process cancellations;
- Why Southwest failed to modernize systems so they could effectively coordinate crew and flight schedules after major storms and during major travel periods;
- How and when Southwest plans to modernize its systems and what, if any, changes the company has made to its crew scheduling software system since the meltdown;
- How many Southwest employees worked overtime—and how many were forced to work overtime—between December 1 and January 2;
- How many passenger refunds the airline gave—and rejected—and whether passengers on canceled flights were reimbursed for hotels, meals, and alternative transportation;
- How many customers experienced delayed, damaged, or lost baggage and wheelchairs, and whether any passengers are still waiting for these items;
- When the decision was made to resume paying stock dividends, and whether other uses for the funds—like software updates or employee pay hikes—were considered; and
- Whether Southwest plans any stock buybacks for 2023, and if so, would they be tied to company performance.
Southwest sparked further outrage
this week by announcing the promotions of several company executives, a move that Liz Zelnick, director of the Economic Security and Corporate Power program at Accountable.US, called indicative of "the behavior of a company with no intention of changing course from management decisions that seek to enrich shareholders while leaving consumers holding the bag."