Southwest to testify at U.S. Senate hearing after meltdown


By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON, Feb 3 (Reuters) - Southwest Airlines LUV.N Chief Operating Officer Andrew Watterson will testify on Feb. 9 before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee after a holiday meltdown forced the budget carrier to cancel thousands of flights.

The hearing titled "Strengthening Airline Operations and Consumer Protections" will also include Southwest Airlines Pilots Association President Captain Casey Murray, Sharon Pinkerton, a senior official with Airlines for America, an industry group, and Paul Hudson, who heads Flyers' Rights, a passenger advocacy organization.

The hearing will review causes and impacts of recent air travel disruptions including the Southwest December holiday operational woes that resulted in more than 16,000 flight cancellations.

Southwest Chief Executive Bob Jordan has repeatedly apologized for the mass cancellations and said the carrier is looking at all options to prevent a repeat.

At the hearing, Southwest said in a statement, Watterson will "use the opportunity to explain how we’ve taken actions to make things right for our customers since Southwest’s late December disruption, as well as what we’re doing to mitigate the risk of it happening again."

But pilot's union head Murray told Reuters in December that "Southwest is using outdated technology and processes, really from the '90s, that can't keep up with the network complexity today."

Watterson said last month that the airline's crew scheduling software did not stop working, "but a combination of our processes and the technology couldn't keep up with the pace of cancellations at the height of the weather disruption."

Southwest is facing a lawsuit from shareholders and regulatory scrutiny over its flight scheduling and handling of more than 16,700 cancellations that disrupted travel plans for about 2 million customers during a busy holiday season.

The U.S. Transportation Department (USDOT) is investigating whether Southwest engaged in "unrealistic scheduling of flights" in December. USDOT has forwarded thousands of complaints it received to Southwest.

In a Reuters interview this week, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg declined to detail what investigative steps USDOT had taken in the Southwest probe but said "we're really looking at several things at once."

Buttigieg said his immediate focus is "making sure the passengers who got caught up in this are made whole."

(Reporting by David Shepardson Editing by Bill Berkrot)

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