Southwest meltdown getting Senate hearings

The Senate transportation committee is planning to hold hearings about Southwest’s Christmastime operational meltdown.

In a prepared statement, committee chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said that the hearing will be part of a broader effort by the transportation committee to strengthen consumer protections and airline operations as part of this year’s FAA reauthorization process.

The FAA’s current authorization expires on Sept. 30.

“Southwest’s customers are rightfully dissatisfied and deserve better,” Cantwell said in a prepared remark Wednesday.

The committee will look into the causes of the Southwest disruptions and their impact on consumers. No date for the hearings has been announced. 

Southwest canceled more than 13,000 flights, representing 58.2% of its schedule, between Dec. 24 and Dec. 29, even as other airlines had largely recovered from the previous week’s Winter Storm Elliott. The carrier has said it will provide reimbursements for expenses incurred by customers due to cancellations between Dec. 24 and Jan. 2, including for hotels, meals and transportation. 

The carrier is also legally required to provide airfare refunds when requested for all flights it canceled. 

Airlines refund requirement getting stricter

In August, the DOT proposed stricter refund requirement for airlines. Specifically, the proposal would require carriers to provide refunds when requested for domestic flights that are delayed more than three hours and for international flights that are delayed more than six hours. Currently, airlines must provide refunds upon request for flights that are significantly delayed, but the DOT has no specific definition of what entails a significant delay. 

Also under the August proposal, airlines would be required to issue flight credits, vouchers or refunds to customers who choose to cancel their travel due to advice from a doctor or because of government restrictions or guidance during a public health emergency. 

In comments submitted to the proposal’s public case file in November, Cantwell advocated for airlines to legally be required to reimburse customers for costs such as lodging and transportation that they incur due to cancellations or significant delays that fall within an airline’s control. 

In a move made this week, the department did, in fact, broaden the rulemaking process related to the refund proposal.

That move relates to the DOT’s July 2021 proposal to require airlines to refund baggage fees when baggage is delayed more than 12 hours on domestic flights and more than 25 hours on international flights. The proposal would also require airlines to promptly refund passengers for fees on any ancillary services that the carrier fails to provide. 

This week, the DOT decided to roll those proposals into the rulemaking process for airline ticket refunds. 

The comment period on the ticket refund rulemaking ended in December. Some 5,200 comments are now being reviewed by the DOT, the department said. 



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