Buttigieg lays blame on top-level management, praises staff for working ‘extremely hard, under trying circumstances’
Southwest Airlines leadership was at fault for thousands of flight cancellations and delays from Dec. 24 to Dec. 29, the U.S. Department of Transportation says.
“While weather can disrupt flight schedules, the thousands of cancellations by Southwest in recent days have not been because of the weather,” Secretary of Transport Pete Buttigieg said in a Dec. 29 letter to Southwest CEO Bob Jordan.
The airline has admitted “the cancellations and significant delays at least since Dec. 24 are due to circumstances within the airline’s control,” Buttigieg wrote. He and Jordan had discussed the issues in the wake of consumer complaints about the airline, which fall under Buttigieg’s purview.
He noted the airline’s staff was working “extremely hard, under trying circumstances.”
While all U.S. airlines were forced to cancel flights amid a massive, fierce winter storm that began affecting travel on Dec. 22, other airlines “recovered relatively quickly, unlike Southwest,” Buttigieg wrote.
Further, Buttigieg faulted the airline’s top-level management: “These frontline employees are not to blame for mistakes at the leadership level.”
A major cause of the problems, according to union leaders, was the airline’s failure to upgrade antiquated systems that are used to assign flight crews to aircraft. This deficiency has been noted for years and caused a series of “mini-meltdowns” previously, Southwest employees told The Epoch Times in an article published Dec. 29.
The airline, in a statement released on Dec. 30, declared that it had returned to “normal operations,” after seven days of high cancellations.
In public statements earlier this week, airline executives said employees had been working nonstop to dig the airline out of massive problems the cancellations caused.
As of 10:30 a.m. Eastern on Dec. 30, the airline had canceled only 41 flights, fewer than 1 percent of its total, according to FlightAware—a huge turnaround compared to a day earlier. On Dec. 29, the airline canceled about 59 percent of its flights, Buttigieg noted, “while other major airlines canceled 3 percent.”
16,500 Flights Cancelled
From Dec. 22 to Dec. 29, Southwest canceled a total of 16,500 flights, according to preliminary data from the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA).
The airline’s operations were somewhat normal on Dec. 22, with about 1,000 flights canceled, according to SWAPA. But the number of cancellations climbed after that, SWAPA said, peaking at an estimated 3,100 flights on Dec. 26, then hovering around 2,500 cancellations for each of the next three days.
As a result, the airline wrangled with thousands of stranded passengers, untold pieces of lost baggage, and crew members who were marooned at airports with no aircraft assigned to them.
Buttigieg reminded Southwest of its obligations to help stranded passengers reach their destinations “safely and quickly;” to help those passengers with costs for meals, hotels, and ground transportation; to promptly issue refunds to customers who couldn’t rebook their flights; and to reunite customers with luggage.
The consequences ruined many people’s holiday plans.
“No amount of financial compensation can fully make up for passengers who missed moments with their families that they can never get back—Christmas, birthdays, weddings, and other special events,” Buttigieg wrote.
“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.”
He noted that customers have reported extreme difficulty with contacting Southwest, and he promised to hold Southwest accountable “if it fails to fulfill commitments that the airline has made in its customer service plans for controllable delays and cancellations.”
Southwest is now under pressure to fulfill thousands of refunds.
Buttigieg reminded the airline: “Under the law, Southwest must provide prompt refunds when a carrier cancels a passenger’s flight or makes a significant change in the flight, regardless of the reason, unless the passenger accepts rebooking.”
As a result, Southwest must provide refunds within seven business days for credit card purchases, and within 20 days for purchases made by other means, Buttigieg said.
“The department will use the full extent of its investigation and enforcement authority to ensure Southwest complies with its refund obligations,” he warned.
“I hope and expect that you will follow the law, take the steps laid out in this letter, and provide me with a prompt update on Southwest’s efforts to do right by the customers it has wronged,” he said.
Buttigieg’s department has said it plans an investigation of Southwest’s recent problems, which also are drawing scrutiny from a powerful U.S. Senate committee.
On Dec. 27, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, announced: “The committee will be looking into the causes of these disruptions.
“Many airlines fail to adequately communicate with consumers during flight cancellations. Consumers deserve strong protections, including an updated consumer refund rule.”
Southwest has repeatedly pledged to make amends.
In a statement posted to its website on Dec. 30, Southwest expressed appreciation for employees and customers.
“We appreciate the dedicated work of the Southwest team to restore our schedule, and we anticipate minimal disruptions for the weekend,” the airline said.
“Once again, we value the continued patience and support of our valued customers, and we apologize for the inconveniences of the past week.”
The airline said it was striving “to return to our previous level of Southwest hospitality and reliability.”