Southwest Airlines Chief Operating Officer Andrew Patterson is set to testify February 9 before the Senate Commerce Committee about a nationwide meltdown that stranded travelers during the holidays in December.
During the hearing entitled, “Strengthening Airline Operations and Consumer Protections,” members of the committee will also hear from Capt. Casey Murray, Southwest Airlines Pilots Association President; Sharon Pinkerton, a senior official with Airlines for America, an industry group; and Paul Hudson, who heads Flyers’ Rights, a passenger advocacy organization.
During December’s holiday travel week, Southwest canceled more than 16,000 flights over several days amid a massive winter storm that swept across a vast swath of the nation. The cancellations created a giant snowball effect that rippled across its network, leaving planes, pilots and other crew members scattered, hundreds of thousands of passengers in limbo and scores of luggage abandoned at baggage claims throughout the U.S.
The massive cancellations by Southwest compared to very few—zero to 2% by the other major air carriers—during and immediately following the storm.
Pilot’s union head Murray told Reuters in December that “Southwest is using outdated technology and processes, really from the ’90s, that can’t keep up with the network complexity today.”
In mid-January the union called for what could be Southwest pilots’ first-ever strike, saying they’re motivated by failed contract negotiations as well as scheduling system issues that affected pilots and led to the airline’s widespread operational failures. A vote on the strike would take place beginning in May so that passengers have time now to book flights with other airlines for spring and summer travel.
The airline said in a statement that during the upcoming Senate hearing, it will “use the opportunity to explain how we’ve taken actions to make things right for our customers since Southwest’s late December disruption, as well as what we’re doing to mitigate the risk of it happening again.”
The Department of Transportation has also been investigating the Southwest meltdown.
In an interview this week, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg declined to detail what steps the DOT has taken so far, except to say that his immediate focus is to make sure that Southwest passengers who were impacted by the meltdown “are made whole.”