DOT probes Southwest Airlines schedule after holiday travel collapse

US Department of Transportation investigates Southwest Airlines Co.

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‘sa in the wake of its holiday crisis last month, examining whether executives sold more flights than the airline could realistically operate.

The DOT said it is in the early phase of a thorough investigation into the late-December debacle. As part of the investigation, the department said it is looking into whether Southwest engaged in an “unfair and deceptive practice” by offering unrealistic hours.

“DOT will leverage the full extent of its investigative and enforcement power to ensure consumers are protected, and this process will continue to evolve as the Department learns more,” a spokeswoman said.

Southwest said it would cooperate with any inquiries or requests from government or elected officials. “Our holiday flight schedule was carefully designed and offered to our Customers backed by a robust plan to operate it and extensive staffing,” the company said.

The DOT also said it is monitoring to ensure that Southwest complies with the rules around granting refunds to affected customers and reimbursing expenses, which Southwest has said it is doing.

Southwest canceled more than 16,700 flights December 21-31 after it struggled to recover from a severe winter storm that hit the country before Christmas, causing it to cut nearly two-thirds of its flights for three days in an effort to reset .

Southwest has said the airline was staffed and ready for the holidays, but widespread severe cold, wind and ice disrupted its operations. A slew of flight cancellations prompted waves of crew schedule changes and then overwhelmed the software system Southwest uses to reassign pilots and flight attendants after disruptions. As a result, the executives said, the airline had to revert to tedious manual processes that they said made it difficult to catch up and get back on track.

The airline is working with the provider General Electric Co.

in a new version of that system, among other steps.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has criticized airlines for their stumbles in recent months and blasted them last summer for scheduling more flights than they could handle. He has vowed to enforce refund rules and other measures to hold carriers accountable.

Some lawmakers have pushed for broader consumer protection measures. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.), who heads the Senate committee on transportation issues, said last month that the committee will investigate the Southwest cancellations.

Southwest Chief Executive Bob Jordan said earlier this month that the airline was processing refunds within three days of receiving requests, within DOT-imposed timelines.

Email Alison Sider at [email protected]

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It appeared in the January 26, 2023 print issue as ‘DOT Probes Southwest Airlines Scheduling After Holiday Meltdown’.