During a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing on Thursday, Southwest Airlines COO Andrew Watterson apologized for system disruptions in December that left more than 16,000 flights canceled. Watterson said, “We messed up.”
ANDREW WATTERSON: I know the Southwest operational disruption during the last week of December has garnered a tremendous amount of attention, so I appreciate your opportunity to testify on behalf of the company regarding airline operations and consumer protections.
I want to sincerely and humbly apologize to those impacted by the disruption. It caused a tremendous amount of anguish, inconvenience, and missed opportunities for our customers and our employees during a time of year when people want to gather with their families and avoid stressful situations. We understand that for many, this is perhaps the most important trip they take all year. Again, on behalf of Southwest Airlines, I am deeply sorry.
Still, we’ve been mindful that an apology alone, no matter how heartfelt or how often stated, would not suffice. We immediately recognized we had to take care of our customers, and with regards to this disruption, we did so in a variety of ways.
Allowing customers to rebook their travel at no cost, effectively doubling our normal time for rebooking. Granting all reasonable reimbursement requests for our customers‘ out-of-pocket expenses, including hotels, rental cars, meals, tickets on other airlines, and other necessary expenses, like replacement car seats and strollers and pet sitting services.
We promptly processed refunds requested by customers for unused airfare for any Southwest flight canceled or severely disrupted during this period. We prioritized returning the bags to their proper owners. I’m pleased to report that except for a small percentage of recent requests, we have completed all those steps.
It has truly been an all hands on deck effort, and our people will not let up until the requests are completed. We also made an additional gesture of goodwill with 25,000 Rapid Reward points, roughly a $300 value, to every customer significantly impacted by the disruption.
So why did this happen? Let me be clear, we messed up. And I would like to explain to you how we messed up. In hindsight, we did not have enough winter operations resiliency, from where and how we de-ice aircraft to the cold resiliency of our ground support equipment and infrastructure.
Our high rates of cancellation in Denver in Chicago, where 25% of our flight crews are based, caused our crews to be displaced. At this point, the disruption changed from a weather event that all airlines experienced to a crew event that was unique to us. And once again, when I say “crew event,” it’s nothing to do with the behavior of our employees. It’s to do with how we managed the crew network.
As the storm moved east, other Southwest airports of all sizes in the Central and Eastern part of the country began experiencing similar operational disruptions, and the cascade of challenges led to waves of cancellations within two hours of departure. This overwhelmed our crew scheduling processes and technology. We had upgraded this system earlier in the year, but we are taking a fresh look at it and other systems of how we should improve.
Ultimately, none of this is an excuse. We need to make sure our operational resiliency and technology are strengthened for future extreme weather events, no matter how unprecedented. We owe that to our customers and to our employees.
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