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U.S. Senate Plans Hearings to Hold Southwest Accountable for Meltdown

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A top U.S. lawmaker is taking the first step to hold Southwest Airlines accountable for its historic meltdown last week, calling for hearings after the airline canceled more than 12,000 flights while raising the prospect of changes in law to “strengthen consumer protections.”

Southwest is back to flying smoothly this week but the fallout continues, with the airline focused on refunding hundreds of thousands of Americans whose flights were canceled and processing reimbursement requests for their additional expenses. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat and chair of the powerful Senate Commerce Committee, announced late Wednesday that her panel would bring Southwest in for hearings to explain its “massive operational and customer service failures.”

“Southwest’s customers are rightfully dissatisfied and deserve better,” Cantwell said. “These consumers need refunds and reimbursements for their expenses.”

Cantwell added her committee would “examine how to strengthen consumer protections and airline operations,” suggesting the panel could use the looming reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration as an avenue to pursue those changes.

southwest cancellations friday 

In an email Thursday, Southwest confirmed it had received the release from Cantwell's office. The airline has committed to refunding travelers whose flights were canceled between Dec. 24 and Jan. 2 and promised to reimburse them for extra costs like last-minute flights on other carriers, rental cars, hotels, and meals. Southwest has said they're processing those requests “as quickly as possible” but haven't committed to a timeline nor said how much they'll pay out.

Earlier this week, Southwest separately offered customers 25,000 bonus Rapid Rewards points as a proactive apology.

Read more: Southwest is Refunding & Reimbursing Travelers, How to Get What You Can

An official U.S. Senate hearing has not yet been scheduled, and the fate of any additional consumer protections for U.S. travelers remains uncertain – especially in the Republican-controlled U.S. House. Bills like the so-called “Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights” that would require airlines to refund and compensate customers for lengthy delays and cancellations have gone nowhere for years.

Meanwhile, a stronger rule requiring speedy refunds for canceled flights proposed by the Department of Transportation is making its way through the federal rulemaking process. Cantwell and other senators have also pushed to require airlines to cover travelers' costs for additional hotel nights and meals during long delays and cancellations, something airlines are currently free to decide for themselves.

Southwest's meltdown looms large, especially after throwing a wrench in millions of Americans' holiday travel plans, but it's not the only airline that has struggled to keep flights moving. After downsizing during the worst of the pandemic, nearly every airline across the country has periodically canceled or delayed flights by the thousands as travel demand has come back.


Bottom Line

Travelers are still waiting to find out how (and when) Southwest will make up for last week's disruptions, but federal officials aren't wasting any time investigating what led to this latest operational catastrophe.

A date for the hearings hasn't been set, but it's clear the situation with Southwest could lead to more protections for air travelers in the future.

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