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Southwest Airlines Faces Tough Questions From Senators

Southwest Airlines Faces Tough Questions From Senators

Casey Murray, the president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, told the Senate committee that his union had long complained about the problems at the root of the airline’s meltdown but management did little to address them.

Mr. Murray said Southwest did not adequately prepare for bad weather, did not invest enough in its operations and had poor leadership. He was particularly critical of the executives who ran the company before its current management, which includes Mr. Watterson and the chief executive, Bob Jordan, who took over last year.

“Warning signs were ignored, poor performance was condoned, excuses were made, processes atrophied, core values were forgotten,” Mr. Murray said.

During the holidays, Southwest did not have enough covers to protect airplane engines and did not prepare ground crews for the storm, he said. Mr. Murray also argued that the systems used to plan flights and schedule crews were not well integrated and spit out plans that did not always make sense together.

At the height of the disruption, communication broke down between employees at Southwest’s headquarters in Dallas and crews around the country. Pilots and flight attendants trying to reach headquarters were placed on hold, sometimes for hours. According to a photograph included in Mr. Murray’s prepared remarks, a Southwest dispatcher messaged pilots in an airplane asking them to identify themselves and noting that things were “a mess down here.” At least 350 pilots were assigned schedules that put them far from their home bases at the end of their workday, according to the union.

The airline has said it is working to prevent another meltdown, including closely watching for signs of potential problems, increasing staffing and upgrading tools used to schedule and communicate with crews.

The Department of Transportation has begun an investigation to assess whether executives knowingly scheduled flights that the airline could not realistically complete, a violation of federal law banning unfair and deceptive practices.

Ms. Cantwell criticized Mr. Jordan on Thursday for not appearing before the committee, saying he “didn’t want to show up.” In a statement, Southwest said it had provided the committee with Mr. Jordan’s schedule and noted at the time that he had a conflict on Thursday. Mr. Watterson was “exceptionally well positioned” to answer lawmaker questions, the airline said.

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