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Southwest Airlines executive tells Senate panel: “We messed up”

Southwest Airlines chief operations officer Andrew Watterson will tell lawmakers on Thursday that operational missteps led to the holiday travel debacle that led to more than 16,000 flight cancellations and millions of passengers getting stranded.

“We messed up,” Watterson will tell the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in a hearing on Thursday, according to his prepared testimony. “In hindsight, we did not have enough winter operational resilience.”

The holiday flight meltdown sparked outrage among customers as well as investigations from lawmakers and transportation regulators. Watterson described a series of snowballing problems, starting with a winter storm that was worse than they had expected and exacerbated by operational shortfalls. 

“It became clear that, with the storm severely disrupting our Denver and Chicago Midway stations concurrently, we did not have enough resiliency in our operation for the severe effect this winter event had on us,” Watterson said in his remarks. 

The Southwest executive said the company plans to invest $1.3 billion in upgrading and maintaining its computer systems this year and that it has spent “hundreds of millions” of dollars in refunds and reimbursements.

“An apology alone, no matter how heartfelt or how often stated, would not suffice to make things right,” Watterson said.

Crew scheduling errors

The company was forced to cancel almost all flights out of Denver, the airport from which it has the most flights, from the evening of December 21 through December 23, and also in Chicago Midway, its second largest airport, from December 22 to December 23.

But because the carrier’s flight staff are assigned three-day work periods, many crews in Denver and Chicago couldn’t complete their shifts, leaving “subsequent flights in their schedule uncovered,” Watterson said. 

“With such a large percentage of flights cancelled, for such a long duration, in Denver and Chicago especially, the Southwest Airlines Crew Network was under severe stress as we entered December 24th,” he added.

The travel disruptions contributed to a fourth-quarter loss of $220 million for Southwest, and also could hit the airline’s first-quarter results.

Meanwhile, a group of senators wants to enact passenger protections after the holiday flight cancellations from Southwest and others, which would force airlines to compensate flyers during airline-caused delays and cancellations.  

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