Southwest withholding details on holiday meltdown, senator charges

The top Democratic senator responsible for overseeing the airline industry said Wednesday that Southwest Airlines is withholding information from her committee about how it’s handling refunds for customers caught up in its December holiday meltdown, where some 16,000 flights were canceled.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, has been seeking details from Southwest since February, including how many passengers were involved, how many were issued cash refunds versus vouchers for future flights, how many were rebooked and when the airline plans to upgrade its internal systems that caused the debacle. And while Southwest has provided some information, Cantwell says it hasn’t been enough.

“We still need Southwest to be more forthcoming with information about refunds,” Cantwell said Wednesday, following a meeting with Southwest CEO Bob Jordan. “The follow-up meeting today brought some information up but we still want more information from them.

“We had constituents where it basically took every ounce of us intervening to get refunds. We want a sense of how many more people are there like that,” she said. She added later that she isn’t interested in “proprietary information.”

Jordan, who was speaking at an industry luncheon in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, said he and Cantwell had a “good meeting” and pledged that his staff will “go deeper” to satisfy her concerns.

“I don’t want to go through the details. It was a private meeting,” Jordan told reporters after the lunch. “And I shared a lot of information with her about where we are in our process. We have time with a senator and her staff, I believe, on Friday, to talk further and understand — go deeper in terms of the numbers. And I’m hopeful for progress there.”

Jordan said that “basically anybody” who dealt with flight issues between Dec. 24 and Jan. 2 was “basically refunded or [we] gave you a travel credit.” He said that as “a gesture of goodwill” Southwest gave out free tickets to many passengers affected by delays and cancellations and that the airline is reimbursing customers who had to buy another airline ticket, stay in a hotel, buy a meal or buy a taxi.

“We are covering all those expenses,” Jordan said, adding that the total cost was “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars.” (The airline said in January it has so far lost $220 million and that it expects more to come due to the residual effects of reimbursements and refunds owed to passengers.)

Southwest plans to release a comprehensive report this month on what led to the meltdown. Jordan said Wednesday that an internal investigation and external investigation by the consulting company Oliver Wyman are “wrapping up” and should be made public in a few weeks.

Cantwell also added that the fallout from the scheduling meltdown “is going to be a big part of” a major aviation policy bill lawmakers are working on, which is due in September.

“Obviously the public is very disgruntled over this issue of cancellation fees and timelines,” Cantwell said. “Here’s one of the biggest examples of the flying public being let down so we want to know what are the resolutions to this. Did they get their expenses reimbursed and did they get a refund? Or did somebody just shove some frequent flyer miles at them? So we’re just digging a little bit more to get those answers.”

The Transportation Department is also investigating the matter.

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