Several lawmakers blasted Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg over the meltdown at Southwest Airlines which caused thousands of passengers to miss their flights, claiming that the situation could have been avoided.
The company, which announced plans to resume normal operations beginning on Friday, canceled roughly two-thirds of flights during the busy Christmas travel season, even after severe winter weather conditions that struck the United States had subsided and other carriers had ceased canceling an elevated number of flights.
Executives vowed that the company will reimburse the passengers whose flights were canceled, as well as those who were forced to stay in hotels, rent cars, or purchase tickets with another carrier. Buttigieg called the “level of disruption” experienced by customers over the past week “unacceptable” in a letter to Southwest CEO Bob Jordan and said his agency would use “the fullest extent of its investigative and enforcement powers” to ensure customers are reimbursed.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) called on the Transportation Department to hold Southwest CEO Bob Jordan “accountable for his greed and incompetence; Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) remarked that he joined Sanders “nearly six months ago” in asking Buttigieg to implement fines and penalties on airlines which cancel their flights. “Why were these recommendations not followed?” the lawmaker asked. “This mess with Southwest could have been avoided.”
Southwest canceled 57% of flights on Thursday even as other companies, such as American Airlines and United Airlines, canceled less than 1% of flights, according to data from FlightAware. The cancellation rates among major carriers were comparable on Friday and Saturday.
The June letter from Sanders, which noted that the airline industry received $54 billion in relief during the lockdown-induced recession, asked Buttigieg to “promptly refund passengers for flights that have been delayed over an hour,” as well as impose fines on airlines for “flights that are delayed more than two hours” and for “scheduling flights that they are unable to properly staff.”
“Taxpayers bailed out the airline industry during their time of need,” Sanders wrote. “It is the responsibility of the airline industry and the Department of Transportation to ensure, to the maximum extent possible, that the flying public and crew members are able to get to their destinations on time and without delay.”
Nina Turner, a former state lawmaker in Ohio and an ally of Sanders, likewise held Buttigieg accountable for the Southwest meltdown. “This is incompetence. This is what placing unqualified people in positions of power to do the bidding of corporations will get you,” she contended. “There is a direct line from Secretary Buttigieg to the Southwest Airlines debacle and we shouldn’t pretend there isn’t.”
Buttigieg, a former presidential contender who is often floated as a potential future Democratic nominee, has been the subject of multiple controversies during his tenure in the Biden administration. The official took months of paid leave last year after he adopted twins even as the supply chain crisis hamstrung the American economy. He was also caught vacationing in Portugal as the specter of a nationwide rail strike loomed earlier this year and reportedly used taxpayer-funded private jets at least 18 times since assuming office, despite his support for policies that seek to address climate change on a national level.