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U.S. senator seeks ‘full accounting’ of Southwest Airlines meltdown refunds

By:
Reuters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senate Commerce Committee chair Maria Cantwell on Thursday asked Southwest Airlines to provide a full accounting of all refunds issued and denied after a December technological meltdown led to the cancellation of 16,700 flights.

Travellers deal with weather cancellations at Chicago Midway International Airport

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Senate Commerce Committee chair Maria Cantwell on Thursday asked Southwest Airlines to provide a full accounting of all refunds issued and denied after a December technological meltdown led to the cancellation of 16,700 flights.

The Democratic senator asked Southwest Airlines Chief Operating Officer Andrew Watterson for detailed data from the travel disruptions that affected 2 million passengers.

Watterson said last week the airline had paid hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation and reimbursements for traveler expenses.

The meltdown is estimated to have cost the airline more than $1 billion and prompted a U.S. Transportation Department investigation.

Watterson said last week the airline has received about 284,000 claims from passengers impacted by the meltdown and reimbursed more than 273,000 – leaving 10,782. He said those still under review had been submitted more recently. All but 200 bags that had no identification have been returned, he added.

Cantwell said she wanted to know how many passengers got refunds, the total value and how many passengers proactively accepted a voucher or credit or rebooked on Southwest.

Southwest said it had received the letter and would continue to engage with Cantwell’s office.

“We share a collective commitment to ensure Southwest customers receive great care and hospitality,” the airline said in a statement.

At a hearing by Cantwell’s committee last week, Southwest faced harsh criticism from U.S. senators investigating the airline’s meltdown. One lawmaker called the situation an “unmitigated disaster.”

The airline and its pilot union offered sharply contrasting reasons for the low-cost carrier’s massive travel disruptions. While Southwest cited weather impacts, the union singled out poor preparation and a failure to modernize technology.

Watterson said the airline made mistakes and that technology issues were a factor.

Cantwell this week questioned Southwest’s decision to resume dividend payments instead of prioritizing upgrades to its IT system.

Watterson said any passenger claim that was well documented and under $4,000 could be paid on the spot, while higher requests went to a supervisor. He added that 96% of claims were completed.

“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.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Aurora Ellis and Jamie Freed)

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