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“Tired of the Apologies”: Workers, Flyers Say Southwest Airlines Meltdown Was Decades in the Making

StoryDecember 28, 2022
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The U.S. Department of Transportation says it will investigate cancellations and delays by Southwest Airlines after the airline canceled about two-thirds of its flights since a Christmas snowstorm. The unprecedented operational meltdown left thousands of travelers stranded, causing scenes of chaos at airports across the country during one of the busiest travel seasons in the year. Corliss King, vice president of TWU Local 556 representing Southwest flight attendants, says the union has warned the company for years about the technical issues that contributed to this week’s chaos. We also speak with Paul Hudson of FlyersRights, the largest nonprofit airline passenger rights organization in the U.S., who blames decades of cost-cutting and chasing profits for the deteriorating service in the airline industry. “It’s more profitable to have bad service than good service,” says Hudson.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter, Paul and Mary singing John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” That song was written in 1966. If it was 2022, maybe it would be called “Not Leaving on a Jet Plane.” No one has to hate to go, because they’re not going anywhere, so many thousands of passengers stranded around the country. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

After facing outrage over the lack of regulation of the airline industry, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says he’ll investigate flight cancellations and delays by Southwest Airlines that resulted in air travel chaos in the Christmas snowstorm and left thousands stranded around the United States through today. In an unprecedented operational meltdown, Southwest Airlines canceled about two-thirds of its flights since the storm. As baggage piles up at terminals around the United States, passengers are sleeping in airport hallways. The city of Houston went into emergency operations mode at Hobby Airport after more than 150 flights were canceled. There are tens of thousands of flights that have been canceled in the last week. This is a Southwest passenger at Los Angeles International Airport.

LAKESIA BARRETT: I was on the phone for like four hours on hold, no answer. So, we woke up this morning. I said, “Let’s just come to the airport to see what’s going on.” So, clearly, the flights are canceled, canceled, canceled and more canceled. … These amazing people that have come to work, they don’t deserve our frustration of having to get home.

AMY GOODMAN: As horror stories about travel with Southwest Airlines circulated, the company’s CEO Bob Jordan released a video apology Tuesday night.

BOB JORDAN: We’re doing everything we can to return to a normal operation. And please also hear that I’m truly sorry. … The tools we use to recover from disruption serve us well 99% of the time, but, clearly, we need to double down on our already-existing plans to upgrade systems for these extreme circumstances.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as Southwest workers, union members say the company has long ignored warnings its software is out of date and unable to handle such disruptions.

For more, we’re joined in Chicago by Corliss King, vice president of Transport Workers Union Local 556, representing Southwest Airline flight attendants. We’re also going to speak with Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights, the largest nonprofit airline passenger rights organization in the country. He lost his daughter in the Lockerbie bombing when she was 16 years old.

We begin with Corliss King. You hear this apology from the president of Southwest Airlines. We’re talking about some of the largest airlines — Southwest Airlines — in the country. Your union has said, and the pilots’ union has said, that you have been warning Southwest about this for years. Talk about the problems that has caused this meltdown, that other airlines do not seem to be experiencing. Ninety percent of the cancellations of all airlines are Southwest.

CORLISS KING: Yes. Well, good morning. And thank you for having me.

It is unconscionable to me that we are standing here today, in 2022, when we have been sounding the alarm, along with our pilots’ union and other unions on property, that our technology issues are absolutely going to lead us to this place. We have seen this before. This is not the first time. It is the first time it’s happened over a Christmas that’s affected so many, but we have had issues of spending the night in hotels that didn’t have heat sometimes because of their own issues, and unable to rectify those things, spending the night on airport floors, sleeping in hallways, as well.

And yet, we are still showing up. We are still ready to service our passengers, even under those conditions. But our union and the pilots’ union and, I’m sure, other unions on property have been asking our company to, please, listen to the frontline workers, who are able to tell you when your operation on paper is not working out. This is absolutely something that could have been avoidable, had they listened to the people who can see immediately when the cracks in the operation begin to happen, and sound the alarm over and over and over again. And it’s just time that we actually invest in our people, in our processes, to make sure our passengers are no longer affected.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Corliss King, could you be a little more specific in terms of what the particular problem that Southwest has versus other airlines? How does the technology affect the ability to get the crews and the pilots to the right planes at the right times?

CORLISS KING: Absolutely. So, crew scheduling, which is our heartbeat of our operation for our crews, is using technology that is not expandable to the airline we are right now. There are not enough seats and not enough expansion of those technology tools to be able to say, on a normal day, we have 500 people who are out of place, but due to a crisis, we now have a thousand people, 1,500 people out of place. That technology has to be able to expand to meet an unprecedented situation like this. That is not able to happen.

It is not our people in scheduling, for example, who answer the phone. They’re doing what they can with the tools they have. It is our inability to be agile and to expand our needs as the situation unfolds to make sure that our crews get, one, where they’re supposed to be to work those flights for our passengers, but also to get legal crew rest, to get accommodations, to give us a place to be, so that we can prepare the next day to work. Our crews are displaced to the point where Southwest doesn’t even know where they are in the system.

So, when we, as frontline workers, as crew that is used to doing what’s necessary, want to be able to say, “Hey, I’m here in Kansas City. You have a flight that doesn’t have flight attendants or pilots. I will work that flight,” we can’t get through to scheduling to say, “We are able to help you solve the problem and get these people home.” That kind of agility is lacking in our technology. And we have told them for years we need a seat at the table, we need a contract that lets us be agile when we need to be agile and lets us protect our quality of life, that says, “We have to be safe to fly those aircraft. So get us proper rest, get us accommodations, and we’ll be able to serve our passengers.”

I have watched our people in tears. I flew myself on Christmas and watched our operation. And frankly, we are tired of the apologies from the executives, and we’re tired of apologizing to our passengers. We have to do better. And Southwest has a golden opportunity to make it right. And that’s what we expect.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’d like to bring in Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights. Paul, the airline industry in America, ever since Jimmy Carter deregulated it, from the passenger’s point of view, has just gotten worse and worse and worse. Every plane is full. Whenever there is any kind of a weather emergency, there are all kinds of problems with cancellations. What do you see is the main problem? Is it that these airlines have no capacity to deal with crisis?

PAUL HUDSON: Well, they have no capacity because it’s actually more profitable to have bad service than good service. Every airline is required to have a plan to deal with bad weather and other disruptions, but there’s no enforcement of the plan. There are no reserve requirements. There are no customer service standards of any meaningful nature. The whole idea of deregulation was that the airlines would compete to provide better service. But actually what happens today, they compete to provide more profitable but worse service.

And there’s a whole list of reasons why this has happened. The main one, I think, is that we don’t have good leadership at the federal level. The airline industry is the only one that I know of that has only one regulator, the federal DOT. And they have really dropped the ball for many years.

Specifically Southwest, their computer system has been obsolete for years, and that’s been known. But the federal government hasn’t taken any action. Computer systems today are not a frill; they’re a necessity. And when they go down, there needs to be a fail-safe backup. Apparently, what happened this week is that there was no backup, and the manual rescheduling of flights is totally inadequate.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul, on the significance of Transportation Secretary — and probably presidential hopeful — Pete Buttigieg saying he is launching an inquiry into what happened at Southwest, how much hope do you hold out in that? And the significance at this point of him talking about people should get refunds for their flights? I mean, if it wasn’t so horrifying, what’s happened, it would make you laugh. Refunds for flights. It is so much worse than that. People are stranded in airports. They don’t have their medicine. You see thousands of pieces of luggage strewn all over airports, that people can’t get to. What are the rights of flyers today?

PAUL HUDSON: Well, domestically, you have no rights to delay compensation. And if weather is the reason for the cancellation or delay, you don’t really have any rights to things like hotel accommodations. It’s all up to the airlines. And, of course, they’ll do anything to avoid those expenses. You know, Secretary Buttigieg is pretty good at jawboning the airlines, but he’s been doing it now for over a year and a half, and it’s really had very little results. We have proposed about 30 different solutions back in June, but there hasn’t been any discussion, as far as we can tell, of any of those things.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Corliss King, I wanted to ask you — Southwest prides itself as being an airline where all of the employees are part of the family. Have you been feeling family love the last few days?

CORLISS KING: I have to be honest with you. I have asked myself, personally, many, many times over in the last several days, you know, “Am I adopted?” Because I don’t feel like family. And I think many people don’t feel like family right now.

That said, I have to say, in full transparency, Southwest does a lot of things right. We do a lot of things right. I think that our history proves that we have a heart for our family and our employees. However, we have seen a huge influx of middle management that has changed us from the little airline that could to the largest carrier in this country. But we have to grow with it. We have to keep our profits in line with what we are producing as frontline employees. We’re not sharing in that like we should. And it’s not just about money. It is absolutely about the fact that we deserve the quality of life that is comparable to the contribution that we give. We are the forward-facing people of Southwest Airlines to our passengers. There is not one single person that buys a ticket on our airline that does not see a flight attendant.

AMY GOODMAN: Corliss King, we want to thank you for being with us, vice president of Transport Worker Union Local 556, and Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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