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Southwest Airlines was in the hot seat at a Senate hearing over its recent meltdown

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

A top Southwest Airlines executive was in the hot seat on Capitol Hill today. A Senate committee was questioning him over the airline's disastrous performance over the December holidays. Southwest canceled nearly 17,000 flights during that operational meltdown. The airline delayed thousands more, affecting at least 200,000 would-be travelers. NPR's transportation correspondent David Schaper covered the hearing. So David, tell us what happened today.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Well, Juana, senators in both parties called for this hearing to demand an explanation of what went wrong. But first, they all told stories of constituents who were stranded, some for many days, with little or no communication from the airline. There were stories of missed holiday celebrations, missed funerals and even one woman who missed her own wedding and, along with her wedding party, lost tens of thousands of dollars of expenses. Senators also took their shots at the airline, including Nevada Democrat Jacky Rosen, who called it an unmitigated disaster.

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JACKY ROSEN: It is unacceptable that thousands of flights during the busiest travel season of the year were canceled or significantly delayed. They left many travelers stranded, affecting plans to be with families and loved ones. These cancellations had a devastating impact on families across Nevada.

SUMMERS: Lots of criticism there. So how did the airline respond?

SCHAPER: Well, the airline's chief operating officer, Andrew Watterson, responded really the only way he could - by saying he's sorry.

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ANDREW WATTERSON: 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.

SCHAPER: Watterson then acknowledged that no matter how heartfelt, an apology would not suffice. He said the airline has been working hard to refund airfares for cancelled flights and reimburse customers for extra expenses that they incurred, like hotels and meals. They say - the airline says they've returned almost all of the luggage now that people had gone weeks without. And then Watterson went on to try to explain why this fiasco happened.

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WATTERSON: Let me be clear. We messed up. In hindsight, we did not have enough winter operations resiliency.

SCHAPER: Watterson also explained how an antiquated crew scheduling system failed, leaving the airline unsure of where many planes, pilots and flight attendants were. Crew members reported spending hours on hold while trying to get in touch.

SUMMERS: Wow. OK. This failure happened more than a month ago, and since then, Southwest has been promising fixes for their systems. Did Watterson give an update about that?

SCHAPER: He did. He says the airline is investing $1.3 billion this year in upgrading its technology, including the failed crew scheduling software. They're also investing more in other equipment like de-icing trucks that were in short supply. And they're using outside experts to do a thorough and fully systemic review of all the company's operations. But the pilots' union, which is currently in contract negotiations with Southwest, isn't fully convinced that the airline is taking the right steps. The head of the union, Captain Casey Murray, also testified at the hearing, and he said this.

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CASEY MURRAY: For years, our pilots have been sounding the alarm about Southwest's inadequate crew scheduling technology and outdated operational processes. Unfortunately, those warnings have been summarily ignored by Southwest's leaders.

SUMMERS: In the few seconds we have left, David, in the State of the Union, President Biden talked about taking action to prevent airlines from nickel-and-diming people. So might we see Congress or the White House go after airlines for situations like this one?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, several senators, particularly Democrats, brought up the need to beef up regulations of the airline industry, and this meltdown and others like it that we've seen over the last several months as airlines try to recover from the pandemic, could help build momentum for such measures as an airline passenger's bill of rights. So we could be seeing a lot of activity on that front in this current Congress.

SUMMERS: NPR's David Schaper, thank you.

SCHAPER: Thank you, Juana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.