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

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.

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The Washington senator asked Southwest Airlines Chief Operating Officer Andrew Watterson for detailed data from the travel disruptions. Watterson said last week the airline had paid hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation and reimbursements for traveler expenses.

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Watterson said last week the airline has received about 284,000 cases from passengers impacted by meltdown and reimbursed more than 273,000 -- leaving 10,782. He said those still under review had been submitted more recently.

Cantwell wants 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 did not immediately comment Thursday.


At a hearing last week before Cantwell's committee, Southwest faced harsh criticism from U.S. senators at a hearing investigating the airline's meltdown that disrupted travel plans for 2 million customers, with one lawmaker calling 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 questioned Southwest's decision to resume dividend payments instead of prioritizing making upgrades to its IT system.

"Southwest told half the story -- they didn't tell the whole story. This issue is why did you make a big dividend payment instead of making the infrastructure investment that would have prohibited this from happening," Cantwell said this week.

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.

Watterson added 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," he said, without elaborating or providing evidence on which claims he was referencing.

The meltdown caused the cancellation of almost 17,000 flights and is estimated to have cost the airline more than $1 billion. It has also prompted a U.S. Transportation Department investigation.

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Source: Reuters

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