Southwest under fire for promoting executives amid flight meltdown that left thousands stranded

Company had a nightmarish holiday season with Biden administration promising to hold it accountable

Abe Asher
Thursday 12 January 2023 00:02 GMT
Rows of Southwest planes parked in California as thousands of flights cancelled

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Louise Thomas

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Southwest Airlines had a miserable holiday season, but several of the company’s top executives can console themselves with promotions.

For the underfire company announced that is elevating five executives across several different areas of the organisation including the communications division and network operations control.

“These changes, which are effective immediately, represent phase two of the organizational structure work that began in September 2022,” Southwest said in a statement.

“This phase will provide strong synergies by bringing Teams together, which will strengthen our operational execution and better serve our People and Customers.”

Watchdogs were not impressed with the announcement, which comes just weeks after a massive operational failure in the wake of a severe winter storm left thousands of passengers stranded at airports across the country and embattled Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg promising that the airline would be held accountable.

Thus far, however, Mr Buttigieg and US airline regulators have not taken any major step to hold Southwest accountable for the debacle.

Matt Stoller, director of research at the American Economic Liberties Project, wrote on Twitter that the timing of the promotions suggests that the airline does not particularly fear any potential reprisals.

“After the utter disaster of the last month, Southwest holds its executives to account by… giving a bunch of them promotions,” Mr Stoller wrote. “They are just mocking Pete Buttigieg. And why shouldn’t they?”

Mr Buttigieg and airline regulators faced heavy criticism over the winter holidays from consumer protection advocates who believe that they have not done nearly enough to protect passengers in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic that upended air travel.

Over the summer, a raft of airline cancellations led watchdogs and several prominent Congressional Democrats to call on Mr Buttigieg to take measures to boost consumer protections and hold the airlines accountable.

But that did not happen, with Southwest workers saying that the airline’s December cancellations were a result of the company’s cost-cutting manoeuvres that led to its failure to invest in technology that could have helped it navigate the storm and busy holiday season.

Other airlines cancelled flights directly affected by the storm, but then recovered quickly. Southwest did not.

Democratic lawmakers have kept up the pressure on Mr Buttigieg in recent days.

“In light of the sheer magnitude of Southwest Airlines’ most recent operational failures and the devastating impact these failures and other airline, cancellations continue to have on American consumers, we believe much more needs to be done,” a group of 26 Democratic lawmakers wrote to Mr Buttgieg in a letter last week.

The airline industry has frustrated a number of lawmakers since Congress passed a major bailout for the industry after the pandemic hit. The promotions at Southwest are unlikely to allay that frustration.

“Southwest thought its executives deserved a promotion after leaving thousands of its consumers in the lurch in the middle of peak holiday season travel,” said Liz Zelnick, director of the Economic Security and Corporate Power programme at Accountable.US.

“That’s the behaviour of a company with no intention of changing course from management decisions that seek to enrich shareholders while leaving consumers holding the bag.”

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