HARTFORD — U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal announced plans Monday to introduce an “airline passengers’ bill of rights” in response to Southwest Airlines’ cancelation of tens of thousands of flights during the holiday season.
Blumenthal offered details of the planned legislation during a morning press conference outside the state Capitol building days after the Texas-based airline returned to normal operations following a week of disruptions initiated by widespread winter storm in late December.
Canceled flights and missing luggage impacted potentially over a million holiday travelers on Southwest flights where obsolete crew-scheduling software crippled the airline’s operations, according to the Associated Press.
Blumenthal said the carrier’s mismanagement called for federal action from lawmakers and regulators. The senator accused Southwest of “airline malpractice” caused by efforts to save money rather than investing in necessary technological upgrades.
“What Southwest did was really reprehensible, trying to penny-pinch and save money on essential components of running an airline: information technology, scheduling personnel available,” Blumenthal said. “Southwest utterly and completely failed.”
The planned legislation would include provisions requiring carriers to provide passengers money-back refunds for canceled flights or pay for those passengers to board alternative flights available from other carriers, Blumenthal said.
Other elements of the bill would require that passengers are compensated for lost or delayed luggage and provided with rental vehicles, meals and lodging in the event of a canceled flight.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Southwest Airlines is already required to provide some of the relief mentioned by Blumenthal. In a Dec. 31 post on its Twitter feed, the DOT reminded the carrier it was committed to ensuring passengers and their baggage reached their destinations and were provided with meals, hotels and transportation.
Blumenthal told reporters he spoke last week with U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg who pledged to impose “stiff penalties” on Southwest as well as push for full refunds for affected passengers.
In an email, Southwest Airlines did not respond to Blumenthal’s proposal. However, in a Saturday press release, CEO Bob Jordan pledged to the airline’s employees that the company would invest the necessary resources to improve its systems.
“You know, we’ll move forward with lessons learned here, as we always do,” Jordan said. “We have plans to invest in tools and technology and processes, but there will be immediate work to understand what happened.”
During his press conference, Blumenthal suggested federal agencies including the Department of Justice and the Federal Aviation Administration should consider taking further action to compel airlines to improve their services.
“I think the whole airline industry is due for a radical makeover using antitrust laws and consumer protection statutes, new legislation as well as enforcement of existing laws to protect consumers,” Blumenthal said.
It was unclear Monday how Blumenthal’s proposals would fare in the divided Congress that will be sworn in later this week. He said he had spoken to Democratic colleagues on the issue and hoped Republicans would opt to support the legislation as well.
“Frankly, there’s nothing Republican or Democrat about a canceled flight or a stranded passenger sleeping overnight on the floor of an airport,” Blumenthal said. “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.”