Southwest plans to tell Senate it’s confident in its schedule after holiday meltdown

A Southwest Airlines passenger jet lands at Chicago Midway International Airport in Chicago, Illinois, on December 28, 2022.

Kamil Krzaczynski | AFP | Getty Images

Southwest Airlines plans to apologize before a Senate panel on Thursday over the carrier’s December meltdown that stranded hundreds of thousands of travelers around Christmas.

“In hindsight, we did not have enough winter operational resilience,” Chief Operating Officer Andrew Watterson said in written testimony, which was reviewed by CNBC, ahead of Senate Commerce Committee hearing.

Southwest canceled more than 16,700 flights between Dec. 21 and Dec. 31 as its crew-scheduling software couldn’t keep pace with massive flight disruptions from brutal coast-to-coast winter weather. The debacle made for an $800 million pretax hit and drove the carrier to a net loss last quarter.

Watterson plans to tell the committee that the carrier has made short-term improvements to communicate more easily with crews when things go wrong and has improved tools that keep track of the operation’s stability.

With those mitigation tools, “we are confident in our flight network and the schedules we have published for sale,” Watterson plans to say, according to the testimony. “The upgrade to the Crew software will equip us to better handle recovery from a mass cancellation event.”

Committee Chair Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., called the hearing as political pressure mounts over a host of flight disruptions last year that drove up the cost of trips, if not derailed them, for thousands of consumers.

Lawmakers also have their sights set on airline fees. President Joe Biden is aiming to crack down on seat charges, among other fees, and mentioned the issue during his State of the Union speech Wednesday night.

Southwest’s CEO Bob Jordan, a more than three-decade veteran at the carrier who has been in the job for one year, will not attend the hearing Thursday. A spokesperson said Jordan had previous commitments, including an employee event.

The hearing will also include testimony from Casey Murray, president of the Southwest pilots’ labor union; Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president of legislative and regulatory policy at Airlines for America, an industry group that represents the country’s largest airlines; Paul Hudson, president of consumer rights group Flyers’ Rights; and Clifford Winston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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