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Sat, Apr 29, 2023

DOJ and DOT Jointly Probe Southwest Airlines

As Dirty and Wrong as It Sounds

The U.S. Department of Justice has thrown-in with an ongoing U.S. Department of Transportation probe into Southwest Airlines’ 2022 holiday travel season operational woes—a trifecta of overbooked, delayed, and canceled flights hitherto unseen in modern times.

The debacle occasioned the cancellation of some 16,000 flights and has compelled regulators to examine in earnest the airline’s business and operational orthodoxies for purpose of determining whether Southwest willfully booked flights it knew full-well it couldn’t properly staff.

DOT spokesperson Kerry Arndt stated: “The DOT team probing whether Southwest engaged in unrealistic scheduling of flights is also closely coordinating with DOJ and FAA. DOT will leverage the full extent of its investigative and enforcement power to ensure consumers are protected and to hold Southwest accountable for any violations of the law.”

Arndt set forth the DOT’s focus remains on Southwest’s scheduling practices. In the wake of severe winter weather that affected major airports across the U.S. from 21 to 26 December 2022, Southwest’s cascading flight cancellations stranded tens of thousands of holiday travelers for days on end. While competing airlines recovered quickly from the storm’s ravages, Southwest’s recuperative efforts were egregiously and conspicuously hampered by an archaic internal scheduling system and the airline's peculiar route network.

Arndt remarked: “As part of this investigation, DOT has conducted on-site audits of Southwest’s refunds and reimbursements records, met with numerous Southwest officials to assess the causes of Southwest’s system-wide winter holiday breakdown, and is examining tens of thousands of pages of documents.”

Southwest Airlines spokesperson Brandy King averred the airline will continue to cooperate with the federal investigation, stating in an email: “It remains our understanding that the DOT is continuing to take the lead on this matter. We have not received any inquiries from the Department of Justice but remain ready to cooperate with all interested government agencies.”

Controversial Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg announced in January 2023 that his agency would investigate Southwest with an eye toward determining whether or not the airline had engaged in unrealistic scheduling—the sort of duplicitous legerdemain that constitutes an unfair and deceptive practice under federal law. The DOT worked with Southwest to determine how many affected passengers were, if fact, eligible for refunds under federal law.

Referring to his airline’s customers, Southwest CEO Bob Jordan stated that “basically anybody” who contended with flight delays or cancellations between 24 December and 02 January was “refunded or [we] gave you a travel credit.” Jordan asserted that Southwest—in addition to reimbursing customers compelled by flight delays or cancellations to purchase additional airline tickets, stay in hotels, dine in restaurants, or hire taxis—had provided inconvenienced air-travelers free tickets and rewards points.

Southwest went so far as to audit itself by dint of an outside consulting firm. Confronted with the results of the evaluation, the airline vowed to upgrade its infrastructure and rapidly implement software updates.

Nevertheless, Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell (Democrat, Washington State), whose panel oversees the U.S. airline industry, has prevailed unrelentingly upon Southwest to provide her committee ever increasing volumes of data pertaining to numbers of passengers involved in the 2022 holiday travel cataclysm, cash refunds issued versus vouchers for future flights, re-bookings, and information establishing when the airline intends to upgrade its internal computer networks. Cantwell maintains Southwest has provided information, albeit not enough for her tastes. The Senator alleged recently that the airline had withheld details her office requested.

That private companies are under no obligation to disclose internal documents in the absence of a court order is of little apparent concern to Cantwell, who is an adherent of the prevailing Capitol Hill ethos that the rule of law may be disregarded in the pursuit of expediency or political aims.



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