Cantwell to Southwest Exec: “My Constituents Want to Know If You're Going to Fix This System and When"

During Commerce Committee hearing, Cantwell presses airline COO on failure that left 2 million travelers stranded; Demands COO contact Seattle high school basketball coach seeking full reimbursement after team got stuck in Vegas: “I know you're a busy guy -- but what they really wanted was for you to call them.”

WASHINGTON, D.C. – During a hearing today to discuss Southwest Airlines’ holiday cancellations, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Chair of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, pressed Southwest Airlines Chief Operations Officer Andrew Watterson on a firm timeline for technology upgrades to prevent a repeat of last December’s flight cancellation debacle.

Sen. Cantwell cited the story of the Rainier Beach High School boys basketball team – a party of more than two dozen people who were stranded in Las Vegas for five days, piling up more than $10,000 in food and hotel bills paid for out-of-pocket by the head coach and his wife. Sen. Cantwell urged Watterson to commit to all necessary upgrades to prevent future disruptions.

“My constituents … want to know if you're going to fix that system and when,” said Sen. Cantwell. “A lot of people suffered a lot because of this, juxtaposed to other airlines and where they were. And you just paid out a huge dividend. So people want to know, are these guys going to invest in the technology that will make this system operational, so this will never happen again?”

Watterson responded that the airline’s software fixes were underway, but that he didn’t know when upgrades to their de-icing technology would be complete. “We're undergoing the assessment right now,” said Watterson. “We are doing a top to bottom view of our winter operations, and it’ll undoubtedly be in the millions and millions of dollars. … But it won't be until probably in March that we’ll have finished the assessment of exactly how much and where.”

At the conclusion of her opening statement, Sen. Cantwell relayed a request from the Rainier Beach coach:  “When I spoke to coach Bethea and his wife recently, they wanted to ask one question,” said Sen. Cantwell. “Mr. Watterson, they wanted me to ask you -- and I know you're a busy guy -- but what they really wanted was for you to call them.” A member of Sen. Cantwell’s staff then handed Watterson a notecard with the Betheas’ phone number on it.

Sen. Cantwell also expressed dismay that Southwest’s CEO, Bob Jordan, chose not to testify.

“Your CEO didn't want to show up,” Sen. Cantwell told Watterson. “I definitely think (Southwest Airlines co-founder and former CEO) Herb Kelleher would be here if he was the CEO.”

After suggestions by Republican colleagues that Democrats were seeking to undo airline deregulation, Sen. Cantwell pushed back.

“Accountability is not re-regulation,” said Sen. Cantwell. “And I think we’ll have a lot of conversations about how to grow the airline industry and how to protect consumers.”

Heading into the hearing, the company asserted that it had processed 99.5 percent of its refund requests. But Sen. Cantwell pressed Watterson for more detailed information on the number of would-be fliers who had actually received refunds for their cancelled tickets – whether or not they had filed a formal request with Southwest.

“Do you know the number of how many actual tickets were cancelled?” Sen. Cantwell asked.

“I have the refunds, would that be sufficient?” Watterson responded.

Sen. Cantwell continued: “No. No. … What we're really trying to understand here… [is] how many people really had their tickets cancelled. And then, you want to know how many people you really did refund. So until you know that ,you don't really know the answer. You know how many people submitted something, but what we really want to know is how many tickets actually were cancelled that didn't fly. So if we could get that information from you that would be helpful.”

“Certainly,” Watterson said.

The committee heard testimony from Watterson; Captain Casey A. Murray, President, Southwest Airlines Pilots Association; Paul Hudson, President, Flyers’ Rights; Sharon Pinkerton, Senior Vice President, Legislative and Regulatory Policy, Airlines for America; and Dr. Clifford Winston, Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution.

In the days following the Southwest Airlines software malfunction that left thousands of airline staff and passengers stranded over the 2022 holiday season, Sen. Cantwell pledged that the Committee would “be looking into the causes of these disruptions and its impact to consumers.”

On Tuesday, Sen. Cantwell held a virtual roundtable with constituents from Washington state who were impacted by Southwest’s failure. The participants shared a range of experiences that included missed holiday celebrations with family members, thousands of dollars spent out-of-pocket, and minimal communication from the airline. “No American should be stranded anywhere for four days without communication about what their options are,” Sen. Cantwell said.

Video of Sen. Cantwell’s opening statement and Q&A portion of today’s hearing are available HERE; audio is available HERE and a transcript is available HERE.