Did Southwest Airlines sell flights it knew it couldn’t fly?

Photo (c) Sky Captain 86 - Getty Images

Feds are investigating whether that played a role in the holiday weekend meltdown

A month after Southwest Airlines’ Christmas weekend meltdown that stranded thousands of holiday travelers, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) says it has opened an investigation into what happened and why.

In the immediate aftermath, pilots pointed a finger at the airline’s computer system, saying it was badly outdated and unable to catch up once the avalanche of weather-related cancelations began.

But the investigation will also focus on another area of inquiry. Did the airline engage in an “unfair and deceptive practice” by selling flights it knew it had little chance of operating?

“DOT will leverage the full extent of its investigative and enforcement power to ensure consumers are protected, and this process will continue to evolve as the Department learns more,” a spokeswoman told the Wall Street Journal.

Southwest said it is cooperating with the government’s probe but rejected the idea that it oversold flights. In a statement, the company said the holiday flight schedule “was thoughtfully designed” and the airline had enough staff and equipment in place to handle it.

But the airline canceled more than 16,000 flights from Dec. 21 through Dec. 31 after a severe winter storm stretched from coast to coast just before Christmas. While competitors recovered more easily, Southwest had to cancel nearly two-thirds of its flights over a three-day period. Unfortunately for many travelers, it happened to be the Christmas weekend.

First-hand accounts

First-hand accounts from Southwest passengers continue to flow into ConsumerAffairs. Helen, of La Mesa, Calif., told us her holiday flight was canceled after everyone was aboard the plane, with the pilot explaining there was a computer issue. As a result, she said she missed a family holiday gathering.

“The holidays for some of us are the only time we get to spend and save up to get to see our family and a lot of that time was lost for some of us including having to spend additional funds that some of us don't have to spend especially during the holidays,” Nancy wrote in a ConsumerAffairs review.

In addition to DOT’s probe, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation is also investigating what happened and why. Committee Chair Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash) said lawmakers will look into the causes of the flight disruptions and whether they go beyond weather.

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