Many travelers were left in dismay after Southwest Airlines' holiday meltdown that resulted in the cancelations of thousands of flights, stranding people in unfamiliar cities across the U.S.
As a powerful Arctic front pushed across the U.S. days before Christmas causing many cities to go under winter weather warnings and advisories, the company had not expected to cancel the majority of its flights.
As a result, Southwest Airlines was brought before a Senate Committee to answer tough questions about what happened, how to prevent it from happening again, and how to better protect or compensate passengers when flights are delayed or canceled, an inconvenience most travelers have likely experienced.
In prepared remarks, Southwest CEO Andrew Watterson apologized to the company's customers and employees.
"First and foremost, I want to take a moment to sincerely and humbly apologize to those who were impacted by this disruption. It caused a tremendous amount of anguish, inconvenience, and missed opportunities for our Customers and Employees during a time of year when people want to gather with their families and avoid stressful situations. Again, on behalf of Southwest Airlines, I am sorry," Watterson said in written remarks.
As a result of the travel nightmare, it has renewed focus on congress' efforts to pass what is known as the "Passenger Bill of Rights," a bill that would protect customers and require airlines to issue refunds and compensation when flights are canceled, delays, or oversold.
It was first introduced in 2021. A new version – Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights and Forbidding Airlines from Imposing Ridiculous (FAIR) Fees Act – was recently introduced by Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn).
What is Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights bill?
If passed, here is what the bill would require of airlines:
- Require airlines to pay at least $1,350 for passengers who are denied boarding as a result of an oversold flight
- Require airlines immediately refund baggage fees for damaged or lost bags
- Prevent airlines from charging "unreasonably high fees" for checked bags, selection a seat, or changing tickets
- Require airlines to issue ticket refunds, alternate transportation, compensation, and pay for meals and hotels if a flight is delayed more than four hours
- Prevent airlines from limiting how much compensation a passenger can get for giving up their seat on an oversold flight
- Requires airlines to reveal the "true cost" of operating a flight, and offer lowest fairs on multi-stop flights
You can read a copy of the proposed bill below.
The bill is aimed at helping people like Maggie Paredes, who had a tough time getting from Houston back to Orlando over the holidays.
"When I was about to check in, right there, two hours from now I was supposed to be boarding a plane, and at the check-in I got a message that my flight has been canceled, and I'm like oh crap," she told FOX 35 at the time.
She said she had to unexpectedly book a hotel room and fly out another day.
"They were like we got you on a flight tomorrow, so I stayed at the hotel but the whole night I'm like so worried about my luggage, they didn't know where it was," she said.
During the committee hearing, senators on both sides of the aisle asked Southwest Airlines tough questions.
"Families were unable to gather, people were left stranded, luggage was shipped all over the country, separating people from their possessions, and even from their vital medications and appointments," said Sen. Ted Budd, a republican from North Carolina.
Captain Casey A. Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, also attended the hearing and said Southwest's issues that enveloped over Christmas have been known about issues for a while.
"What our pilots saw and have known for years is Southwest struggles to manage any disruption, regardless of the cause," he said.