Sen. Maria Cantwell questions Southwest over holiday cancellations
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) wants to know how airlines can avoid another debacle like the one that led to more than 16,000 Southwest Airlines cancellations last December.
Representatives from the airline appeared Thursday morning before the Senate Commerce Committee, which Cantwell chairs.
She particularly wanted to know what steps are being taken by the company to ensure it maintains control in the future during inclement weather.
Southwest COO Andrew Watterson placed blame in part on issues with crew-scheduling software. But as he began to explain what exactly went wrong, Cantwell cut in.
"I don't think [my constituents] care about what whether it didn't go to full capacity, had a glitch," she told Watterson. "They want to know if you're going to fix that system and when."
Watterson promised a fix would be in place Friday, though he was not clear whether that would be enough, leading to another terse exchange with Cantwell.
"I have a lot of pilots here, and they're telling me that they've been telling you about [these issues] for a long, long time," Cantwell said. "So, people want to know: Are these guys going to invest in the technology that will make this system operational, so this will never happen again?"
"We need to invest in technology but also in our operational systems outside of technology, because the winter operations were too much for us," Watterson responded. "You're correct that other airlines were able to handle the winter weather, and we were not."
The other "operational systems" Watterson referred to include improved de-icing infrastructure at airports, which he expects will cost millions of dollars. He says the company is currently taking stock of all such needs but does not expect that assessment to be complete until at least March.
In the meantime, Cantwell said customers want to know airlines have operational control, which pilots say the company lost in December.
Capt. Casey Murray, president of the of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, told Cantwell the company admitted it could not follow through with its own plan during the winter storm. He said the root of the problem is in how Southwest connects flight crews to specific airplanes.
"When there is a disruption, then it takes Southwest much longer to recover," Murray said. "Any pilot who is here... can attest to the chaos that they go through when going to work. They don't know where they're going to go. They don't know where they're going to overnight. They don't know how long they're going to be on duty. And they don't know how long their overnight's going to be. So, it's holistic."