US senators criticize Southwest Air’s December flight cancelations

WASHINGTON D.C.: At a Congressional hearing held last week, Southwest Airlines was criticized by US senators, with one lawmaker calling the recent flight cancelations an "unmitigated disaster."

The disruptions caused the cancellation of almost 17,000 flights between December 21 through December 31 and is estimated to have cost the airline more than $1 billion. It has also prompted a lawsuit from shareholders and a Department of Transportation investigation.

The hearings were called to investigate the computer failures at Southwest causing the disruption of travel plans for 2 million customers.

The low-cost airline and its pilot union gave conflicting reasons for the massive travel disruptions, with the airline blaming the weather and the union citing poor preparations and the use of out of date technologies.

Democratic Senator Jacky Rosen called the incident an "unmitigated disaster" that had a "devastating impact on families."

The top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, Ted Cruz, called the cancellation of more than 16,000 flights "an epic screwup."

In a statement to reporters, Southwest Chief Operating Officer Andrew Watterson said that the airline has already paid hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation and reimbursements for expenses, and will cut 2022 bonuses to executives when they are awarded in March.

"Executive bonuses for 2022 will be reduced because of this. We reimbursed tire chains, strollers, car seats, pet sitting, but things we didn’t reimburse were things like $7,000 shopping sprees at luxury stores or chartering a private jet," Watterson said, adding that 96 percent of claims have been reimbursed.

The airline made mistakes and acknowledged that technology issues were a factor, and is introducing an updated crew scheduling system to address a specific failure during the meltdown, he added.

"We are always going to have these weather events and some of us believe they are going to become more severe. But what we want is to have a system that is ready to address that," said Commerce Committee chair Maria Cantwell.