The US Department of Transportation said it was in the early stages of an investigation into Southwest Airlines’ vacation travel collapse in December.
The investigation includes a review of whether Southwest is scheduling more flights than it can handle.
“The DOT is in the initial phase of a rigorous and comprehensive investigation into the Southwest Airlines vacation debacle that stranded millions of people,” a department spokesperson said.
The airline, the largest US domestic carrier, canceled more than 16,700 flights between December 21 and 29. Southwest estimates the cost of these cancellations will be between $725 million and $825 million. Just over half of the cost — between $400 million and $425 million — will come from revenue from lost tickets that will be refunded to customers.
Much of the rest is intended to compensate customers for purchasing flights on other airlines and a 25,000 bonus points in its frequent flyer program. Various Southwest employees will also receive additional “gratitude” pay for working during the collapse.
“The DOT has made it clear to Southwest that it must provide refunds and reimbursements in a timely manner and will hold Southwest accountable if it does not. The DOT is also investigating whether Southwest leaders engaged in unrealistic flight scheduling, which under federal law is considered an unfair and deceptive practice. The DOT will use the full extent of its investigative and enforcement power to ensure consumer protection and this process will continue to evolve as the Department learns more,” the spokesperson said.
Southwest said it was cooperating with the investigation.
“Our holiday flying program has been carefully designed and offered to our customers with the support of a solid plan to operate it and with sufficient staff,” the airline’s statement read. “Our systems and processes were strained as they tried to recover from days of flight cancellations at 50 airports following an unprecedented storm. We are highly focused on learning this event, mitigating the risk of a repeat event and delivering the exceptional hospitality and service that our customers have come to expect from us.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg previously said the department “will use the full extent of its investigative and enforcement powers” if the airline does not reimburse travelers for their additional expenses.
– CNN’s Chris Isidore contributed to this report