Key Senate Democrats urge Southwest CEO to get answers on holiday crisis

Fifteen Senators, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, sent a letter to Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan this week called for answers about the airline’s handling of holiday travel disruptions in 2022, which have left thousands of passengers stranded at airports.

The questions urge details about what caused the meltdown, including Southwest’s overburdened crew planning software snapping off from all the flight changes. The mass cancellations coincided with severe US winter weather and increased demand for vacation travel, forcing US airlines to cancel thousands of flights.

As other airlines recovered from the storm, Southwest’s problems worsened. It has canceled much of its schedule to try to resume operations, disrupting the travel plans of hundreds of thousands of customers.

“Although Winter Storm Elliott disrupted flights across the country, shortly thereafter every other airline operating in the United States managed to return to a regular flight schedule — with the exception of Southwest,” read the letter sent Thursday.

The airline canceled almost 17,000 flights between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. The company forecast the meltdown would cost it between $725 million and $825 million in the fourth quarter.

“We appreciate the concerns expressed in the senators’ letter and share a commitment to ensuring that Southwest’s customers are properly cared for and that steps are taken to mitigate the risk of a recurrence,” Southwest said in a statement. “We hope that the recent refunds, reimbursements and gestures of goodwill shown to our customers and employees show that we are committed to earning their trust again.”

The senators also asked the airline for details on how to compensate affected passengers through ticket refunds, lost baggage returns and reimbursements for alternative travel arrangements made after Southwest’s cancellations.

Southwest is still evaluating refund requests and refunds from impacted customers.

The senator’s letter also highlights Southwest’s use of funds, claiming it has failed to update company-wide systems that have long been outdated.

“Southwest has long known that its software was outdated, and the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association had warned that unless Southwest invested in new scheduling systems, such a debacle was inevitable,” the letter said. “Rather than making these investments, Southwest paid more than $1.8 billion in dividends to its shareholders between 2011 and 2020 and repurchased more than $11 billion of its stock.”

Sanders previously blasted Southwest on Twitter for its “corporate greed,” noting that the airline used $5.6 billion of its $7 billion in Covid relief to buy back shares for shareholders rather than invest in its internal infrastructure.

The senators have given Jordan until February 2 to respond to their questions.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, has previously said she plans to hold a hearing on Southwest’s collapse.

– CNBC’s Leslie Josephs contributed to this report.

Correction: Senators sent the letter Southwest on Thursday. A previous version incorrectly specified the day.

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