By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senate Commerce Committee chair Maria Cantwell on Wednesday said the panel intended to hold hearings after Southwest Airlines' recent meltdown that led to nearly 16,000 flight cancellations in the week ending Dec. 29.
"Southwest's customers are rightfully dissatisfied and deserve better," Cantwell said in a statement. "These consumers need refunds and reimbursements for their expenses."
Cantwell said she had spoken with Southwest CEO Bob Jordan and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg about the issue and added that the committee "will be holding hearings for FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) reauthorization to examine how to strengthen consumer protections and airline operations."
Southwest, which did not immediately comment on Cantwell's statement, has said it will honor reasonable requests for reimbursement for "meals, hotel accommodations, and alternate transportation (for example: rental cars and tickets on other airlines)" for passengers affected by a flight cancellation or significant delay between Dec. 24 and Jan. 2.
The Texas-based low-cost carrier has not said how much it has paid or how many refunds it has processed but has said it is awarding customers 25,000 Rapid Rewards points it values at more than $300 as a goodwill gesture.
The FAA's operations must be reauthorized by Sept. 30 and the measure has traditionally been used to advance aviation reforms. The Southwest flight cancellations have been cited by some lawmakers as evidence that Congress needs to strengthen protections for air travelers.
Buttigieg has repeatedly vowed to hold Southwest "accountable" if it fails to fulfill commitments to customers for "controllable delays and cancellations."
In July 2021, the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed new rules to require passenger airlines to refund fees for bags that are significantly delayed and for services like onboard Wi-Fi that do not work.
On Wednesday, the department said it would combine the delayed-baggage proposal with another proposal released in August. That one would require airlines to provide non-expiring vouchers when passengers are unable to fly for certain pandemic-related reasons. It expects to issue the final rule by November 2023.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Mark Porter and Bradley Perrett)