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Buttigieg puts Southwest on notice to do right by passengers

(NewsNation) — The nation’s top transportation official put the CEO of Southwest Airlines on notice Thursday, warning that the Transportation Department will take action if the airline fails to compensate passengers for cancellations that have left travelers stranded across the country.

In a letter to Southwest CEO Robert Jordan, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg faulted company leadership for the operations meltdown that resulted in more than 60% of flights being canceled for several consecutive days this week.

“In the coming days, I expect that Southwest will have repositioned its people and aircraft and be on track to resume normal operations,” Buttigieg said. “I hope and expect that you will follow the law, take the steps laid out in this letter, and provide me with a prompt update on Southwest’s efforts to do right by the customers it has wronged.”

The troubles at Southwest began late last week when a major winter storm caused cancellations and delays across the country. Unlike its competitors, Southwest struggled to return to normal operations, which experts attributed to its point-to-point route system that left planes and crews scattered across the U.S.

Southwest said Thursday it expects to return to normal operations by Friday. The airline has acknowledged that it has inadequate and outdated technology that can leave flight crews out of position when bad weather strikes.

The airline has declined requests to make executives available for comment and did not provide an update about operations on its website. Its main public outreach has been to post video statements by Jordan and its chief commercial officer.

Buttigieg in his letter to Jordan demanded Southwest reimburse all passengers impacted between Dec. 24 and Jan. 2, including costs for other airline tickets, Amtrak or rental cars. The company had already previously stated it would honor “reasonable” reimbursement requests for alternate transportation.

“It would be an unfair and deceptive practice not to fulfill this commitment to passengers,” Buttigieg said. “The Department will use the fullest extent of its investigative and enforcement powers to hold Southwest accountable if it fails to adhere to the promises made to reimburse passengers for costs incurred for alternate transportation.”

He reiterated that warning in three other demands that the airline provide meals, hotels and transportation to and from hotels; refund passengers who choose not to rebook; and reunite passengers with their baggage.

“Also, under DOT’s regulation, Southwest is required to reimburse passengers up to $3,800 for provable direct or consequential damages resulting from the disappearance of, damage to, or delay in the delivery of a passenger’s baggage,” Buttigieg said.

While the winter weather impacted operations at most U.S. airlines, Southwest is the only one that has struggled to recover.

“The thousands of cancellations by Southwest in recent days have not been because of the weather,” Buttigieg said. “As Southwest acknowledges, the cancellations and significant delays at least since December 24 are due to circumstances within the airline’s control.”