Editorial: Southwest deserves punishment for widespread travel meltdown

Everyone seems to agree that Southwest Airlines’ monumental meltdown during the critical December holiday travel was inexcusable.

During late December, the carrier canceled more than 15,000 flights.

Now the question is what should be done to punish the airline and what can prevent such a catastrophe in the future.

Southwest CEO Bob Jordan certainly has been contrite in his repeated apologies for the breakdown. He’s offered to give passengers 25,000 frequent-flier bonus points, worth about $300.

But that’s not enough to compensate customers who were prevented from traveling to see loved ones for the holidays and were stuck in airports for days waiting for a departing flight. Plenty more paid to spend unexpected nights in hotels or rented cars to reach their destinations.

Certainly, the winter storm that buried places such as Buffalo, New York, can legitimately be blamed for some of the delays across the airline industry. But no other airline stranded nearly as many travelers as Southwest—a breakdown that can only be blamed on its failure to update scheduling software that keeps track of the availability and location of flight crews.

The software wasn’t up to the task, and numerous news reports show that the airline’s leadership was well aware of the problem long before December’s storm overwhelmed it.

Mistakes of this magnitude deserve punishment.

Congress is right to want to call Southwest’s executives to an investigatory hearing for a good tongue-lashing that tries to get to the bottom of the failure.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg also is right to let Southwest Airlines know it will be held accountable and that it will be expected to make affected customers whole.

“They need to make sure that these stranded passengers get to where they need to go and that they are provided adequate compensation, not just for the flights itself … but also things like hotels, like ground transportation, like meals, because this is the airline’s responsibility,” Buttigieg said.

Some Republicans blame Buttigieg, the former South Bend mayor, for not working harder earlier in his tenure to hold airlines accountable. There might be an element of truth in their criticism. But it should be acknowledged that, under Buttigieg, the Department of Transportation’s consumer protection office issued the largest airline fines in its history in 2022, even as the industry worked to recover and staff up as the pandemic eased.

Some progressive Democrats also have criticized Buttigieg for not enacting tougher rules on the airlines.

But tougher rules aren’t necessarily the answer. Enforcing the current rules would be a good place to start.

Currently, airlines are often able to work their way around regulations that require them to provide actual refunds to customers for canceled flights by merely offering flight credits that customers might never use.

The real measure of Buttigieg’s performance amid Southwest’s meltdown is whether he really forces the airline to provide flight refunds and cover hotel and meal costs that stranded travelers incurred. And he should continue to do so more forcefully in the future so all airlines get the message that they will be held accountable for their failings.

Customers can continue to punish Southwest by boycotting its flights. That’s the real penalty in a free market.•

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