By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Southwest Airlines Chief Operating Officer Andrew Watterson will apologize on Thursday before a U.S. Senate committee over the holiday meltdown that led to the cancellation of more than 16,000 flights and pledge to make changes to ensure that there will be no repeats.
“Let me be clear: we messed up. In hindsight, we did not have enough winter operational resilience,” Watterson’s written testimony for a U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing seen by Reuters says. “We are doing a system-wide review of our preparedness for winter operations and will implement any measures necessary to mitigate the risk of an event like this occurring in the future.”
Watterson’s written testimony offers a new apology: “It caused a tremendous amount of anguish, inconvenience, and missed opportunities for our customers and employees.”
The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) will tell the committee that the low-cost carrier’s “overconfidence” in planning and a “systemic failure to provide modern tools” were responsible for the December meltdown that the union said stranded 2 million passengers.
SWAPA President Casey Murray will tell the Senate Commerce Committee that pilots “have been sounding the alarm about (Southwest’s) inadequate crew scheduling technology and outdated operational processes for years. Unfortunately, those warnings were summarily ignored,” according to written testimony seen by Reuters.
In his testimony, Murray blames the meltdown on “poor planning, systemic under-investment in crew scheduling technology and processes, and a failure to collaborate with frontline employees.”
Southwest is facing an investigation by the U.S. Transportation Department over its flight scheduling and handling of more than 16,700 cancellations that disrupted travel plans for about 2 million customers and is estimated to have cost it more than $1 billion.
The committee had asked Chief Executive Bob Jordan to testify but Southwest told Reuters that he had a prior commitment. Jordan is in Baltimore today for an employee rally.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Mark Porter)
On Sunday, Southwest Airlines Co. CEO Gary Kelly revealed to U.S. lawmakers that the company had made mistakes during a holiday travel meltdown.
In January, a series of computer outages triggered a rapid cascade of problems for the Dallas-based low-cost carrier. Southwest’s operations ground to a halt for nearly a day, stranding passengers, disrupting the airline’s network of more than 3,900 flights per day, and resulting in more than 750 cancellations and 5,000 delayed flights. Kelly said that the resulting disruption had cost the company an estimated $54 million.
On Sunday, Kelly told a House Transportation and Infrastructure panel that “we messed up,” adding that the company had already taken steps to make sure such an incident does not happen again. He assured lawmakers that the company was working around the clock to address their questions and concerns about the event.
Kelly faced a barrage of questions from lawmakers about the event, with particular emphasis placed on details about what went wrong and how Southwest planned to make it right. Kelly responded by saying that the company had conducted a thorough review of the incident and is working to update its entire computer system to prevent a similar occurrence.
In addition to Kelly’s testimony, Southwest vowed to make it right with passengers that were impacted by the incident. The company said that it would be issuing refunds and offering vouchers to customers whose flights were cancelled or significantly delayed.
In the wake of the incident, Southwest has earned widespread criticism from some passengers and lawmakers. However, Kelly remained adamant that the company had responded in a timely and responsible manner. Southwest also said that it has taken steps to learn from the incident and to make sure that it does not happen again.