After canceling nearly 17,000 flights around the Christmas holiday — the worst customer service meltdown in the history of the U.S. airline industry — Southwest announced this week that it is promoting several of its executives, a move that watchdogs decried as a slap in the face of the travelers impacted by the company’s incompetence and greed.
In a press release, Southwest said it is elevating five executives across different departments at the company, including network operations control and communications. The announcement came just over a week after the Southwest pilots’ union published a scathing letter calling the corporation’s management a “headquarters-centric cult” that has “eroded our company from within.”
While Southwest said the new leadership changes “represent phase two of the organizational structure work that began in September 2022,” critics argued the decision to go ahead with the promotions following the holiday debacle shows a total disregard for customers and U.S. regulators, who have been accused of doing far too little to crack down on industry abuses.
“Southwest thought its executives deserved a promotion after leaving thousands of its consumers in the lurch in the middle of peak holiday season travel,” Liz Zelnick, director of the Economic Security and Corporate Power program at Accountable.US, said in a statement Tuesday. “That’s the behavior of a company with no intention of changing course from management decisions that seek to enrich shareholders while leaving consumers holding the bag. We hope that Congress investigates their failures and holds their executives accountable.”
Matt Stoller, director of research at the American Economic Liberties Project, wrote in response to the promotions: “They are just mocking Pete Buttigieg. And why shouldn’t they?”
Buttigieg, the head of the U.S. Transportation Department, has faced growing backlash from airline watchdogs and members of his own party in recent days for failing to take decisive action in the lead-up to and in the wake of Southwest’s mass cancellations, which pilots and flight attendants say were fueled by the company’s refusal to invest in technological upgrades that could have helped the airline giant navigate bad weather and predictable holiday travel chaos.
In recent years, as flight crews pressed for changes to the company’s antiquated technology, Southwest spent nearly $6 billion buying back its own stock.
“Pete Buttigieg chose to let nearly every domestic airline off scot-free after they were caught completely flat-footed earlier this year,” said Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, referring to cancellations surrounding the July 4 holiday. “Despite rampant cancellations and widespread violation of federal law by giving travel vouchers instead of cash refunds, the only domestic airline to face any regulatory scrutiny was the small, politically weak Frontier.”
“That is despite the fact that Frontier was responsible for far less of the industry-wide meltdown than major players like United or Southwest,” Hauser continued. “Every other U.S.-based airline got off with a warning and promised to do better in the future. When you don’t actually enforce the law, you lose credibility as a regulator. Our position is simple: when corporations violate federal law, they should be investigated and held accountable.”
While the Transportation Department has said it is investigating the latest round of mass cancellations and acting on the flurry of refund complaints from Southwest customers whose travel plans were thrown into chaos, lawmakers and advocates argue the agency’s actions thus far have fallen far short of what’s needed to hold the company accountable and prevent future disasters.
“In light of the sheer magnitude of Southwest Airlines’ most recent operational failures and the devastating impact these failures and other airline cancellations continue to have on American consumers, we believe much more needs to be done,” 26 Democratic lawmakers wrote in a letter to Buttigieg last week.
“Refunds and other types of compensation policies quickly become meaningless if there’s not a clear mechanism or platform for passenger redress. Ensuring passengers and airlines can effectively communicate with one another will allow passengers
to swiftly receive any owed compensation as well as any other helpful information a passenger may need after a canceled or significantly delayed flight,” the lawmakers wrote. “Furthermore, the Department should make sure that airlines are able to maintain a reasonable level of operational capabilities in the event of extreme weather or other type of potential disruption. Of course, not all disruptions can be controlled. But issuing rules and standards that could help limit or prevent future cancellations and delays arising from these initial disruptions will ultimately benefit consumers much more than any reimbursement policy ever could.”
William J. McGee, a senior fellow for aviation at American Economic Liberties Project, wrote in an NBC News op-ed earlier this month that “America’s commercial aviation system is broken, but so is the only regulatory agency allowed to oversee it.”
“Consider what we’ve seen from the federal government since Covid hit,” McGee wrote. “For starters, airlines withheld at least $10 billion in unpaid refunds and unused flight credits after the pandemic forced people not to fly in 2020 and beyond. In November, Secretary Pete Buttigieg finally imposed what he termed ‘historic’ fines. But only Frontier and five small foreign carriers were penalized.”
“Then, the first half of 2022 had an unprecedented number of delayed and canceled flights, more than in all of 2021,” he continued. “Despite warnings from lawmakers and groups like my organization, the American Economic Liberties Project, Buttigieg assured passengers in September that the airlines would address their scheduling problems. Unfortunately, he didn’t use his authority under the Transportation Department’s unfair and deceptive acts rule to investigate why tens of thousands of flights were scheduled and then paid for by consumers, only to be canceled.”
“Worse,” McGee added, “there have been no reported penalties for the cancellations. This lack of enforcement may have contributed to Southwest’s Christmas meltdown, because it’s unlikely Southwest and other airlines would have stranded so many passengers if they feared real consequences.”
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