In the Southwest debacle, is Pete Buttigieg to blame?: Travel snafus over the holidays, as well as during nationwide bouts of bad weather, are far from rare. But what’s going on right now with Southwest Airlines is far beyond the norm.
Southwest has cancelled a massive number of flights, stranding travelers around the country for days at a time.
According to CNN, Southwest has canceled more than half of its flights since December 22, with 87% of canceled flights in the country coming from that one airline.
Several factors have been blamed for the debacle. The airline uses an outdated scheduling system that hasn’t been updated since the 1990s, which appears to have collapsed all at once.
According to the New York Times, Southwest got through Thanksgiving without any significant trouble, but it all hit the fan around Christmas. It was something of a downward spiral, in which flights were canceled because the crews were often not in the right city because they were somewhere else due to previous cancellations.
“Southwest’s operations went into paralysis, forcing the company to resort to mass cancellations. The debacle has raised questions about [CEO Bob] Jordan’s performance and has prompted employees and analysts to ask why the company has been slow to fix well-known weaknesses in its operations.”
The debacle arrives just over a year into Jordan’s tenure as the airline’s chief executive.
“The tools we use to recover from disruption serve us well 99 percent of the time,” Jordan said in a video n the company’s website this week, “but clearly we need to double down on our already existing plans to upgrade systems for these extreme circumstances.”
The airline’s unions, including Transport Workers Union Local 556 which represents flight attendants, piled o the criticism.
“It is not weather; it is not staffing; it is not a concerted labor effort; it is the complete failure of Southwest Airlines’ executive leadership. It is their decision to continue to expand and grow without the technology needed to handle it,” union president Lyn Montgomery told the Times.
Others have pointed fingers in other directions: To the Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg.
“This is incompetence. This is what placing unqualified people in positions of power to do the bidding of corporations will get you,” former Ohio Congressional candidate Nina Turner tweeted Wednesday. “There is a direct line from Secretary Buttigieg to the Southwest Airlines debacle and we shouldn’t pretend there isn’t.”
Turner linked to a news story from The Lever, authored by David Sirota and Andrew Perez, stating that “State Officials Warned Buttigieg About Airline Mess.”
The Lever story cites a letter from state attorneys general, written at the end of August, to leaders in Congress.
“Over the past couple of years, our offices have received thousands of complaints from outraged airline passengers about airline customer service—including about systematic failures to provide required credits to those who lost travel opportunities during the pandemic,” the letter said.
The letter, however, is not specifically addressed to Buttigieg, but rather to the party leaders in Congress — although it does mention, in its footnotes, a separate letter to the Transportation Secretary by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser — and does not mention Southwest by name. There were, however, other letters this year to Buttigieg from individual state attorneys general as well as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), asking him to do more about significant customer service problems with the airlines.
Both Turner and Sirota are veterans of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns, and there are known hard feelings between the orbits of Sanders and Buttigieg, who both competed for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. Which of the two candidates actually won the botched Iowa caucuses that year, in fact, remains a point of heated contention.
Buttigieg addressed the crisis on Twitter.
“Just as we’ve used our regulatory and enforcement tools to secure over $622,000,000 in refunds to hundreds of thousands of US air passengers this year alone, USDOT will continue acting to ensure Southwest passengers get the refunds and expense reimbursements they are owed,” the Secretary said. “A week since the storm hit, every airline but one has recovered. Overall we’re seeing around 3% of flights canceled, excluding the unacceptable performance of Southwest – which canceled 59% yesterday. USDOT is investigating and we are enforcing customer service standards.”
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Stephen Silver is a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive. He is an award-winning journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.