As scheduling woes and flight cancellations persist at Southwest Airlines, federal officials and politicians are calling for the company to compensate its stranded customers for their frustration, lost time, added expense, and ruined vacation plans.
Meanwhile the airline’s pilots, including many who once were attracted to the company because of its reputation for a dynamic, rewarding work culture, worry that Southwest may not recover from its latest catastrophe.
“At this point, I’m concerned for our airline,” Captain Casey Murray, president of the Southwest pilots union, said in a statement to its members titled “Pride and Avarice.” “We won’t survive another 10 years as a company if this continues, and maybe no more than five.”
Pilots say the problems that led to the current breakdown, such as an inadequate scheduling system and inefficient staffing, have been topics of discussion between employees and company executives for many years. However, movement toward possible solutions has been too slow.
Some pilots say similar rounds of flight cancellations have happened about once a year for the past several years, but the latest episode—complicated by bad weather and a surge of holiday travel—is receiving more attention.
Among those taking a closer look is Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “Southwest passengers have experienced unacceptable disruptions and customer service conditions. I have made clear to their executives that our department will hold Southwest accountable for making things right with their customers and employees,” he said in a tweet.
Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who are members of the Senate Commerce Committee, also weighed in with suggestions for ruminating passengers.
“Southwest Airlines is failing consumers during the most important travel week of the year. Instead of a holiday spent celebrating with family and friends, passengers are sleeping in airports or desperately trying to reach customer service agents. For those travelers whose holidays have been ruined, there is no real way for Southwest to make this right. But the company can start by fairly compensating passengers whose flights were canceled, including not only rebooked tickets, ticket refunds, and hotel, meal, and transportation reimbursement, but significant monetary compensation for the disruption to their holiday plans,” the senators said in a statement.
They also noted that Southwest is planning to issue $428 million in dividends to shareholders next year—a move the pilots union has also criticized. “The company can afford to do right by the consumers it has harmed,” the senators said.
The pilots union at Southwest said a scheduling platform called SkySolver is at the root of its problems in part because it fails to make efficient use of available flight crews. The union said the airline has enough crews to operate its current schedules but SkySolver is deploying them improperly.
Captain Murray, the union president, said the company has repeatedly ignored his group’s proposed solutions, often responding by hiring more pilots. However, he said, there is no shortage of pilots.
“We aren’t undermanned,” he said. “We’re undermanaged.”