When a U.S. Senate committee scrutinizes the December operational meltdown of Southwest Airlines on Feb. 9, the company’s CEO, Bob Jordan, will not be in the hot seat.
Instead, COO Andrew Watterson will be.
“Unfortunately, the date that was selected for the hearing … overlapped a previous commitment for Bob,” the airline said in a Feb. 6 email to The Epoch Times.
Watterson became COO only a few months ago, in October 2022. But the airline said he is well-informed about the issues that the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation is exploring.
“Andrew has been working in lockstep with Bob as we manage recovery efforts,” the Southwest statement said. “As Chief Operating Officer, Andrew is exceptionally well positioned to address the topics covered at the hearing, as well as answer any question a Senator may have.”
Watterson and four other witnesses are scheduled to testify at this week’s hearing on “Strengthening Airline Operations and Consumer Protections.”
The hearing will focus on “the causes and impacts of recent air travel disruptions,” a committee statement says.
Problems ‘Beyond Weather’
Southwest is clearly in the crosshairs at the hearing; no other airline is specifically represented among the witnesses.
Although all U.S. airlines canceled flights amid a large, powerful winter storm that began a few days before Christmas, Southwest was hit hardest. Millions of people were affected as the airline canceled nearly 17,000 flights during the last 10 days of 2022. The airline reported last month that it lost about $800 million as a result of the meltdown.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the committee, called for the hearing on Dec. 27, when Southwest’s problems were at their peak.
At the time, Cantwell wrote: “The problems at Southwest Airlines over the last several days go beyond weather. The Committee will be looking into the causes of these disruptions and its impact to consumers. Many airlines fail to adequately communicate with consumers during flight cancellations. Consumers deserve strong protections, including an updated consumer refund rule.”
Union Leader to Testify
Capt. Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said in a statement that he “looks forward to answering the Committee’s questions and shedding light on problems that have been plaguing Southwest for years to ensure that our pilots and passengers have a reliable travel experience going forward.”
Murray also said he hopes to share “lessons learned to ensure that all U.S. airlines take the steps necessary to prevent unnecessary service disruptions.”
Southwest’s pilots “have been sounding the alarm for years about Southwest’s outdated crew scheduling and IT processes, and they have been summarily ignored,” a release from the union said. Murray, in fact, “accurately predicted a major holiday meltdown” during a podcast that was recorded a month before the airline’s “catastrophic failure.”
A number of Southwest employees previously told The Epoch Times that they blamed outdated computer technology, management inaction, and deterioration of the company’s corporate culture. Last month, Southwest’s pilots union announced that a strike-authorization vote is set for May because years-long contract negotiations remained stalled.
Airline Issues Prominent
The other witnesses who are slated to testify are Paul Hudson, president of a group called Flyers’ Rights; Sharon Pinkerton, representing an airline advocacy group, Airlines for America; and Clifford Winston, senior fellow at The Brookings Institution.
After hearing from the witnesses, the committee said it intends to “examine recommendations and determine appropriate corrective actions to improve airline consumer protections and build stronger, more resilient airline operations.”
The hearing comes on the heels of President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech, which touched briefly on airline-related issues.
“We’re making airlines show you the full ticket price upfront [and] refund your money if your flight is canceled or delayed,” Biden said during his Feb. 7 address.
He spoke against “junk fees” that some businesses, including airlines, charge. Biden said he wants to “prohibit airlines from charging $50 round trip for families just to be able to sit together.”
“Baggage fees are bad enough. Airlines can’t treat your child like a piece of baggage,” he said.