Cantwell Hears WA Residents’ Holiday Travel Stories: “It’s Clear That There Was a System Failure at Southwest”

Constituents from King, Clark, Skagit & Spokane counties share tales of missed holidays, thousands of dollars spent, and lack of communication from Southwest; Cantwell’s Commerce Committee will hold hearing Thursday to question Southwest COO Andrew Watterson about operational failures and refund status

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, held a virtual roundtable to hear from five Washington state residents who were caught up in Southwest Airlines’ holiday meltdown.

After hearing the stories, Sen. Cantwell said that she wants airline reliability, staffing, and communication improved: “We don’t think this is the last time a … challenging event is going to hit our system. … No American should be stranded anywhere for four days without communication about what their options are.”

Veronica Gutierrez, of Mount Vernon, was trying to get her active-duty military son back home from Georgia for the holidays after a difficult year including deaths among members of his battalion. He reached California, but even though there were no weather problems there, his Southwest flights were cancelled. Her son never made it to Seattle.

Hope Grandon, of Seattle, spent Christmas in an airport rather than with family. She was traveling with her boyfriend, who hadn’t spent the holidays with family in three years because of immunocompromised family members. They were traveling to Memphis, but got stranded in Denver and never made it. Hope estimates that she has spent 30-40 hours trying to rearrange travel plans and, subsequently, trying to get refunds. They didn’t receive their luggage for two weeks after their initial flight.

Rob Perkins, of Vancouver, was looking forward to the first full family Christmas in years. His daughter and her partner were traveling from Burbank to Portland via Oakland. When they arrived at the airport they were told that their Oakland to Portland leg was cancelled, but that they couldn’t get a refund for the whole trip because the first flight was still happening. Instead they got rebooked on a flight connecting in Sacramento, but once they got there, that flight got cancelled too. They spent a full calendar day sitting in Sacramento, then were returned to Burbank. Rob and his family decided to delay their family celebration, because Southwest was selling another Burbank to Portland trip. But that flight was cancelled too. The family Christmas was held over Zoom.

Karen Hartman, of Spokane, kept hearing about cancellation after cancellation of flights similar to the one she booked. She found it stressful not to get clear information from Southwest about the status of her flight, though it did end up leaving on time.

Alex Kain, of Bellevue, planned to return to Seattle from a week visiting with East Coast family on December 23rd. His flight back included a connection in Denver. When he got there, after a long wait on the tarmac, he saw people crying, sleeping on the floor, standing in long lines for food. Subsequently his flight was cancelled, and he was told to rebook. He knew that he wasn’t likely to get a seat for several days, so he spent Christmas Eve and Christmas driving to Redmond, Ore. and flew to Sea-Tac from there. The whole detour cost around $3,000, and he was only able to secure refunds by reaching Southwest directly via Twitter.

On Thursday, Feb. 9 at 10 a.m. ET, Sen. Cantwell will lead a hearing at the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation focused on strengthening consumer protections for air travelers. The following witnesses will testify:

  1. Southwest Airlines: Andrew Watterson, Chief Operating Officer
  2. Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA): Captain Casey A. Murray, President
  3. Flyers’ Rights: Paul Hudson, President
  4. Airlines for America: Sharon Pinkerton, Senior Vice President, Legislative and Regulatory Policy
  5. The Brookings Institute: Dr. Clifford Winston, Senior Fellow

In the days following the Southwest Airlines software malfunction that left thousands of airline staff and passengers stranded, Sen. Cantwell pledged that the Commerce Committee would “be looking into the causes of these disruptions and its impact to consumers.” 

Video of today’s listening session is available HERE, audio HERE, and a full transcript HERE.