Winter storm, Buffalo snow and flight cancellation news

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks ahead of expected Thanksgiving travel at O'Hare airport in Chicago on November 21. 
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks ahead of expected Thanksgiving travel at O’Hare airport in Chicago on November 21.  (Jim Vondruska/Reuters)

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN that he spoke to the CEO of Southwest Airlines Tuesday about the company’s barrage of flight cancellations, calling it a “meltdown” and “unacceptable situation.”

“From what I can tell, Southwest is unable to locate even where their own crews are, let alone their own passengers, let alone baggage,” Buttigieg told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, adding that he also spoke with leaders of the airline’s unions representing flight attendants and pilots.

The secretary said he told CEO Bob Jordan that he expects Southwest to proactively offer refunds and expense reimbursement to affected passengers without them having to ask. “I conveyed to the CEO our expectation that they are going to go above and beyond to take care of passengers and to address this,” he said.

Southwest has blamed the travel disaster on a combination of factors, including winter storm delays, aggressive flight scheduling and outdated infrastructure.

Buttigieg said that the Transportation Department will hold the airline accountable to make sure this situation does not happen again.

“Their system really has completely melted down and I made clear that our department will be holding them accountable for their responsibilities to customers, both to get them through this situation and make sure this can’t happen again,” he said.

Buttigieg told CNN the Department of Transportation is prepared to pursue fines against Southwest if there is evidence that the company has failed to meet its legal obligations, but he added that the department will be taking a closer look at consistent customer service problems at the airline.

“While all of the other parts of the aviation system have been moving toward recovery and getting better each day, it’s actually been moving the opposite direction with this airline,” Buttigieg said. “You’ve got a company here that’s got a lot of cleaning up to do,” he added.

The Transportation secretary explained the enforcement tools that are at their disposal and how earlier this year, the department was able to assist customers with reimbursements.

“We have enforcement tools we have been using, especially this year. We saw for example a number of airlines that had cancellations. They weren’t taking good care of their passengers through enforcement actions we’ve been able to get hundreds of thousands of passengers their money back to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. We’re also in a position to use enforcement powers and fines to hold airlines to the things that they have now committed to us, pledged to us in writing that they’ll do,” he said.

The Transportation secretary said the government shouldn’t need to get more money from the airline in order to help reimburse these passengers. “I expect the airline to go ahead and directly take care of passengers with reimbursements and whatever else they need to do to compensate these passengers.” Buttigieg said. “But yes, if they fail to do that, we’ll use our authorities to make that happen on our side.”

Asked how severe the fines will be, Buttigieg told Blitzer: “The bottom line is this shouldn’t be happening in the first place. Obviously we’ll follow through and use our authority to issue fines if that’s what it takes to get something done, but the real question is how to do you get to this situation where an airline can’t even say where it’s own personnel are, let alone keep track of passengers and baggage.”

CNN’s Andy Rose contributed reporting to this post.

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