In the wake of last week’s operational meltdown at Southwest Airlines that left countless passengers stranded in airports across the country over the holidays, U,S, Sen. Richard Blumenthal on Monday called for Congress and the U.S. Department of Transportation to pass stricter protections for travelers, including an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights.
Blumenthal called Southwest’s streak of canceled flights a “disaster” that he said highlights ongoing issues in the larger airline industry. The airline’s failure this holiday season, he said, “dramatizes an ongoing failure with the airlines to respect basic passenger rights.”
Speaking from the State Capitol, the senator said that the number of flight cancellations and delays across airlines nationwide has risen by 63% since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. DOT data show that in 2022, one out of every four flights in America was canceled or delayed, the senator said.
Airlines, Blumenthal said, “are hitting rock bottom performance levels and there are no excuses.”
The Southwest issue hit Bradley International Airport in Connecticut, where on one day last week all of the cancellations there were Southwest flights, including 11 departures and nine arrivals.
“The airlines are giving travelers some of the worst performance in recent history and they are charging more for it than ever,” he said.
The Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights was introduced by Blumenthal in November and would help protect passengers against additional costs incurred by such cancellations, delays and baggage losses.
The bill, according to Blumenthal, would require airlines to provide passengers with fair compensation and refunds and require airlines to pay at least $1, 350 to passengers who are bumped off of overbooked flights.
The bill also would protect passengers from having to involuntarily relinquish their seats unless there are safety or security concerns and require notification to passengers of their rights to refunds.
The bill has been referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Blumenthal said he hopes to bring it before the Senate early in the next legislative session, which is scheduled to convene Tuesday for a pro forma session.He said he hopes lawmakers on both sides of the aisle will support the passengers’ rights he’s proposed.
“There’s nothing Republican or Democrat about a canceled flight and a stranded passenger sleeping overnight on the floor of an airport,” Blumenthal said Monday. “It happened in blue states, it happened in red states. Passengers didn’t care about party when they were sleeping on floors in airports or deprived of the opportunity to visit their loved ones.”
Blumenthal said the Southwest cancellations last week were foreseeable but mismanaged. The slew of canceled flights began just before Christmas, as severe winter weather pummeled multiple states.
“The airlines say that they are not to blame, it’s weather, it’s air traffic control, it’s the lack of sufficient pilots or flight attendants or ground crews,” said Blumenthal.
But this level of cancellations and lack of support for passengers he said, “was the result of bad management, airline malpractice.”
The Senator said he spoke with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg at length on Thursday and that the secretary pledged to hold Southwest accountable for full refunds and compensation to passengers.
Blumenthal said the DOT “ought to be watching like a hawk” to ensure that airlines follow through with refunds and should impose stiff penalties “when airlines fail to do their part.”
Federal regulators vowed a rigorous review of what happened at Southwest, with all eyes on outdated crew-scheduling technology that left flight crews out of place after the storm hit, essentially shutting down almost all of the carrier’s operations, the Associated Press reported.
Southwest announced on Dec. 30 that they would be resuming normal operations and were anticipating “minimal disruptions” over the New Year holiday weekend.
When asked for comment on Blumenthal’s calls to action by lawmakers and the DOT, Southwest on Monday directed the Hartford Courant to their publicly issued statements.
The airlines most recent statement was issued on Dec. 31 from company CEO Bob Jordan.
“You know, we’ll move forward with lessons learned here, as we always do. We have plans to invest in tools and technology and processes, but there will be immediate work to understand what happened,” said Jordan in that statement.
Jordan said one of the priorities in their five-year strategic plan established in 2021 is to modernize their operation and he mentioned a 2022 focus area of " getting back to our historic operational reliability and efficiency.”
“We always take care of our Customers. That’s our 51-year history here,” said Jordan in the statement. “Likewise, I know that we have work to do to restore your confidence in Southwest. You have our word that we will commit to the necessary resources to quickly examine and bolster our strategy for continuous improvement in our processes, our systems, and more.”
Blumenthal said passengers should receive cash back, not vouchers or credits, for costs incurred by delays and cancellation including money spent on rental cars, hotels and meals. The legislation he introduced, he said, would provide these protections.
“It’s basic rights, ironclad guarantees, cash back if they don’t fulfill their end of the bargain. And refunds and compensation if they cause additional cost to air travelers,” he said.
Blumenthal said Monday that he hopes to move the airline passenger bill of rights forward and wants to address concerns with both consumer protection and monopolies in the industry.
“I think the whole airline industry is due for a radical makeover,” said Blumenthal.