Buttigieg Sends Brutal Letter To Southwest CEO Demanding Airline Follow Through With Reimbursing Travelers
Pete Buttigieg, U.S. secretary of transportation nominee for U.S. President Joe Biden, listens during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee confirmation hearing on January 21, 2021 in Washington, D.C.
Stefani Reynolds/Pool via Getty Images

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg blasted Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan in a Thursday letter, demanding that the company take immediate action to reimburse stranded passengers.

The carrier, 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. Executives announced 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 Southwest customers over the past week “unacceptable” in his letter and warned Jordan that his agency would exercise “the fullest extent of its investigative and enforcement powers” to ensure customers are reimbursed.

“While weather can disrupt flight schedules, the thousands of cancellations by Southwest in recent days have not been because of the weather. Other airlines that experienced weather-related cancellations and delays due to the winter storm recovered relatively quickly, unlike Southwest,” the former Democratic presidential candidate wrote. “For many, Southwest’s severe flight disruptions have resulted in missed time with loved ones during the holidays and in being separated for a prolonged period from their luggage even if they never boarded a flight.”

Southwest, unlike other major airlines, uses a route model which avoids hubs and therefore offers faster flights to residents of smaller cities. The delay or cancellation of one flight, however, impacts the entire carefully managed network as planes and staff members do not report to the subsequent leg of their flight path.

“Travelers are stuck at airports, facing the possibility of spending significant amounts of money to find another way of getting where they need to go. No amount of financial compensation can fully make up for passengers who missed moments with their families that they can never get back,” continued Buttigieg. “That’s why it is so critical for Southwest to begin by reimbursing passengers for those costs that can be measured in dollars and cents.”

The company has committed to providing meals when a “controllable cancellation or delay” causes passengers to wait more than three hours for a new flight, according to Buttigieg, who said that the Transportation Department will “take action to hold Southwest accountable” if the company “fails to fulfill commitments” that the airline made in customer service plans.

Southwest canceled 57% of flights on Thursday even as other carriers, such as American Airlines and United Airlines, canceled less than 1% of flights, according to data from FlightAware. The cancellation rates among the three airlines were comparable on Friday.

Executives have sought to implement damage control as flight crews return to their necessary starting locations. “Our network is highly complex and the operation of the airline counts on all the pieces, especially aircraft and crews remaining in motion to where they’re planned to go,” Jordan said in a statement earlier this week. “We’re focused on safely getting all of the pieces back into position to end this rolling struggle.”

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