Southwest Airlines COO Andrew Watterson said in remarks prepared for a Thursday hearing that he and fellow executives “messed up” amid the company’s holiday travel meltdown.
Southwest canceled some 16,700 flights between December 21 and December 31, even as severe winter weather subsided in the days after Christmas. Watterson said in his prewritten opening statement before the Senate Commerce Committee that the disruptions prompted the company to cancel flights so that crews could position themselves to resume normal operations.
“Let me be clear: we messed up. In hindsight, we did not have enough winter operational resilience,” he remarked. “It became clear that, with the storm severely disrupting our Denver and Chicago Midway stations concurrently, we did not have enough resiliency in our operation for the severe effect this winter event had on us.”
Flight schedules for Denver and Chicago Midway, which serve as starting and ending bases for one-fourth of the company’s flight crews, were almost entirely canceled by Southwest in the days before Christmas. The same occurred at other airports across the country as the storm moved east, causing communication between employees to deteriorate amid the chaos.
“This lack of effective communication and coordination resulted in compounding, frequent, close-in flight cancellations, rather than our normal practice of batched pre-cancellations further in advance of departure times,” Watterson continued. “This created an unprecedented amount and frequency of required changes to crew schedules that overwhelmed our crew scheduling processes and technology.”
Southwest previously estimated that between $725 million and $825 million will be lost in the aftermath of the cancellations. The firm reported a $220 million loss in the fourth quarter of last year and warned investors that fallout from the company’s holiday meltdown would continue.
Watterson told lawmakers that Southwest would seek to enhance software used by crew members with a $1.3 billion information technology investment. He added that the company has gone “above and beyond” standards created by the Department of Transportation for airlines that cancel or significantly delay flights; customers received reward points amounting to $300 in value as staffers worked to reimburse passengers for meals, hotel accommodations, rental cars, and tickets purchased with other carriers during the meltdown.
“Southwest is intensely focused on reducing the risk of repeating the operational disruption we experienced in December,” Watterson added. “We are committed to running a great operation each and every day, and I have the utmost confidence that our people, processes, and technologies will do just that.”
The hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee occurs as lawmakers file legislation meant to bolster protections for consumers in the wake of the Southwest meltdown. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), both of whom are members of the Senate Commerce Committee, introduced the Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights and the Forbidding Airlines from Imposing Ridiculous Fees Act last week.
“Air travelers shouldn’t have to foot the bill for basics like a carry-on bag, a seat next to their children, or even for a sip of water, especially as airlines continue to fail passengers at every turn,” Markey said in a press release. “Our nation’s largest airlines can’t even guarantee consumers that their flights won’t be delayed or cancelled, that their luggage won’t be lost, or that they won’t get stranded at the gate because of overbooking. The status quo won’t fly any longer. We must empower regulators and uphold passengers’ rights so they are treated with dignity before, during, and after their flight.”