U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg promised Wednesday that his office is putting intense pressure on Southwest Airlines to compensate customers affected by the company’s widespread flight cancellations.
“This is going to take an extraordinary level of effort by Southwest, and we will mount an extraordinary effort to make sure that they’re meeting their obligations,” Buttigieg pledged on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
The word meltdown “gets thrown around a lot, sometimes in coverage of travel disruptions,” he said, “but in this case, it’s the only word I can think of to describe what’s happening at Southwest Airlines.”
While all U.S. airlines had mass cancellations this past week because of extreme winter weather across the country, most have resumed normal operations and have an average 4% cancellation rate right now. Southwest is the outlier, Buttigieg noted, with its rate still above 60%. While most airlines’ rates steadily improved after last week’s storm, Southwest’s have gotten worse. Since Thursday, the airline has canceled nearly 11,000 flights, according to the flight-tracking service FlightAware ― all during one of the busiest travel weeks of the year when people fly around the country to be with family for the winter holidays.
“We are past the point where they could say that this is a weather-driven issue,” Buttigieg said.
The Texas-based airline’s troubles appear to be tied to its uncommon operational configuration, The New York Times reported. While most airlines have their planes return to a “hub” airport after flying out to other cities, Southwest typically has its planes fly from city to city without returning to a hub ― making it difficult to strategize and arrange plane availability after weather causes mass delays.
Southwest CEO Bob Jordan said in a video Tuesday night that his company is in the process of regrouping and he hopes operations will resume normally before the week’s end.
“Our plan for the next few days is to fly a reduced schedule and reposition our people and planes,” he said. “We’re making headway, and we’re optimistic to be back on track before next week.”
But that does little for Southwest passengers who’ve had to drop large amounts of money booking new flights with other airlines and paying for lodging while they wait for Southwest to rebook them. Those customers are owed fair compensation, Buttigieg said Wednesday.
“They need to make sure that these stranded passengers get to where they need to go and that they’re provided adequate compensation, not just for the flight itself,” he said of Southwest. “They should absolutely be providing refunds for those flights that were canceled if passengers aren’t able to fly or choose not to fly, but also things like hotels, like ground transportation, like meals, because this is the airline’s responsibility.”
Those experiences are especially challenging for people traveling with children, he added.
Buttigieg said he’s spoken to Jordan and that the CEO has pledged to meet his expectations. If not, there’s a good chance the Department of Transportation will step in. Just last month, the department ordered Denver-based Frontier Airlines and five foreign carriers to pay around $600 million in refunds to customers impacted by their delays and cancellations.
There’s also pressure from the Senate Commerce Committee, which has promised an investigation into Southwest’s failures.