Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-WA) said Wednesday her panel plans to hold hearings on Southwest Airlines’ recent meltdown that led to nearly 16,000 canceled flights over the holidays.
“Southwest’s customers are rightfully dissatisfied and deserve better,” Cantwell said in a statement. “These consumers need refunds and reimbursements for their expenses.”
A massive winter storm that had swept across a large swath of the U.S. just as Americans were traveling for the holidays at the end of December led to a breakdown in Southwest’s systems.
However, while the other major air carriers, including American, United, Delta and Jetblue, suffered cancelation rates of zero to 2%, Southwest suffered thousands of flight cancellations per day. Crews were scattered, hundreds of thousands of passengers were left in limbo and scores of luggage sat unclaimed at baggage claims throughout the U.S.
The reason for the disparity was that while other carriers use a a “hub-and-spoke” route model in which planes typically fly from smaller cities to a big city hub airport where passengers change planes—allowing for a ready pool of crew and pilots in a major market—Southwest relies on a “point-to-point” route model that often lets passengers fly directly from smaller cities and regions. Without stopping at a big-market hub airport, it’s harder to reserve a standby flight crew.
Thus, Southwest’s nightmare snowballed.
Already the Department of Transportation has vowed to investigate. On Tuesday, the White House said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg plans to hold Southwest accountable “to do right by the customers it has wronged” and to fine the airline “if it doesn’t cover a cost.”