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Elaine Chao warns of more scrutiny following airlines’ ‘total nightmare’ over Christmas

Former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao warned Wednesday that Southwest Airlines should expect to be under the microscope following the “total nightmare” that occurred over the Christmas holiday when airlines, chiefly Southwest, canceled or delayed thousands of flights, causing chaos at airports around the country.

Chao, who served in the Trump administration and separately as Labor Secretary under George W. Bush, noted to Fox News the stock market has already taken notice of Southwest’s catastrophe, knocking 6% off its shares’ value since the chaos began.

“On top of that, [Southwest] should be prepared for a lot of scrutiny from the Department of Transportation, from Congress and from the public. It’s going to take some time for trust to be reinstated once more between the airlines and also the company,” she said on “The Story.”

Chao also reacted to claims, in Southwest’s case, that their slightly different flight patterns combined with the lack of substantive hubs compared to other major airlines may have also attributed to the fact their passengers were the ones most affected by the Arctic bomb cyclone’s disruption of air travel.

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“You know, it’s ironic because Southwest Airlines used to have one of the best computer scheduling booking systems of all the airlines,” Chao said. “They basically prided themselves on having a personal relationship with the passenger, so that the passenger goes on their website, books it directly. They don’t have to go to any other website.”

“But what evidently was happening is that this is not being kept up during a very, very catastrophic period of time,” said Chao.

She added that the coronavirus pandemic greatly affected air travel in that numerous workers, from pilots to baggage handlers, left the industry when the nation essentially shut down.

The coronavirus aid money approved by Congress helped maintain payroll for affected employees, but the industry was still left in the lurch workforce wise, she said.

“That is also contributing to the problems that we’re seeing in the airline industry,”{ Chao said.

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Chao also referenced a pilot shortage she attributed at least somewhat to new reported FAA rules governing how long pilots can fly and where they can go.

“These [regulations] are almost sacrosanct to the industry and also to organized labor,” she said. “So this is a major issue. It is one of the factors contributing to the shortage of pilots. And again, it’s very, very sensitive. And both sides — management and labor, and the regulators – have to get involved in examining all of that.”

Earlier on “The Story,” guest host Trace Gallagher shared reaction from Chao’s successor at USDOT, Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

Buttigieg, a former South Bend, Ind., mayor, characterized the chaos as a “system failure,” and went on to press that Southwest must do more than simply compensate stranded passengers:

“Southwest is going to have to not only make them financially whole, but find a way to really rebuild trust and confidence again. They pledged to me that they’re going to do that. I want to see exactly what that means,” Buttigieg said.

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The Texas-based airline also released a lengthy statement and apology in the wake of the crisis, which read in part:

“With consecutive days of extreme winter weather across our network behind us, continuing challenges are impacting our Customers and Employees in a significant way that is unacceptable. And our heartfelt apologies for this are just beginning.”

“We’re working with safety at the forefront to urgently address wide-scale disruption by rebalancing the airline and repositioning Crews and our fleet ultimately to best serve all who plan to travel with us,” it read.

“We were fully staffed and prepared for the approaching holiday weekend when the severe weather swept across the continent, where Southwest is the largest carrier in 23 of the top 25 travel markets in the U.S. This forced daily changes to our flight schedule at a volume and magnitude that still has the tools our teams use to recover the airline operating at capacity.”

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