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"It's a mess': Messages to Southwest pilots show meltdown unfolding

Southwest Airlines Chief Operating Officer Andrew Watterson faced lawmakers Thursday in a highly-anticipated Senate Commerce Committee hearing to answer for the airline's historic holiday meltdown.

"Let me be clear: we messed up," Watterson testified. "In hindsight, we did not have enough winter operational resilience."

The largest domestic airline in the U.S., Southwest canceled more than 16,000 flights over an 11-day period at the end of December due to a combination of severe winter weather, staffing shortages and technology issues, the company said. Thousands were left stranded in airports across the country instead of at home for the holidays.

Lawmakers want the company to explain the massive disruption at Thursday's Senate hearing, titled "Strengthening Airline Operations and Consumer Protections."

"The American people have a lot of questions about the Southwest debacle in December that left passengers stranded or unable to be with loved ones over the holidays," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on Wednesday. "We're going to ask for answers to those questions. I'm interested in hearing the pilot's testimony that this debacle could have been avoided if Southwest had made investments sooner."

In addition to Watterson, Southwest Airlines Pilots Association President Captain Casey Murray, Sharon Pinkerton, a senior official with Airlines for America, and Paul Hudson of Flyers' Rights, a passenger advocacy organization, testified.

Murray said that he and other Southwest pilots saw the meltdown coming "for more than a decade" but that company leaders ignored their warnings.

"For years, our pilots have been sounding the alarm about Southwest's inadequate crew scheduling technology and outdated operational processes. Unfortunately, those warnings have been summarily ignored by Southwest leaders," he said.

He said his goal in participating in the hearing is to help ensure it never happens again.

"Today's hearing is not to say we told you so. Right doesn't make our pilots feel any more secure. Our hearts are broken. The December 2022 meltdown was as tragic as it was historic," he said. "While it would be easy to kick our company when it's down, this is our company and consequently our careers and our livelihoods."

Ranking Member Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called it an "epic screw-up" by Southwest but admonished the Department of Transportation for opening an investigation last month, arguing that government regulation here would be an overreach.

"The airline has already paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in refunds, free future flights and reimbursements for stranded travelers out of pocket expenses. The airline is working hard to win back travelers trust," Cruz said. "What I hope to hear today are the specific concrete steps taken by Southwest management to ensure that a similar operations meltdown never happens again."

"The Department of Transportation now plans to investigate the sensibility of the entire schedule, armchair quarterbacking the scheduling and operations of an entire industry. That's just foolish," he continued. "A world in which the Department of Transportation can deem an entire airline schedule quote 'unrealistic' is a world with fewer flights to smaller airports, in Texas and Montana, in Nevada and Arizona, and less flexibility and competition for airlines, and ultimately, higher prices."

Responding to the IT failures, Southwest Airlines' crew scheduling system will be upgraded on Friday, the company executive said.

"The disruption changed from a weather event that all airlines experienced to a crew event that was unique to us. And once again, when I say crew event, it's nothing to do with the behavior of our employees. It's to do with how we manage the crew network," said Watterson.

He said the "root cause" of the meltdown was how Southwest handled its winter operations.

"All we're trying to say is the problem or the root cause was how we handled our winter operations -- and that's where we will see us put some focus over a multi-year period -- because that's what started the dominoes to fall and the last domino was the crew scheduling system, not being able to function as as we'd like," he said.

Ahead of the hearing, ABC News obtained messages sent to Southwest Airlines' cockpits during this winter's meltdown which illustrate the dysfunction taking place at the company.

"Scheduling is asking to confirm who is operating this flight. Please send Employee ID numbers to confirm. It's a mess down here," one message said.

Southwest had no idea where their crews were, who was flying their planes and was unable to contact pilots and flight attendants for days.

The airline flew more than 500 empty flights, many on routes that had been cancelled and could have been full of passengers while more than two million people were stranded.

"No updates here. Scheduling is so far behind we were told we aren't allowed to walk over and talk to them," another note from a flight dispatcher to a cockpit read.

Last month, in an exclusive interview with ABC's "Good Morning America," Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan apologized for the debacle.

"There's just no way almost to apologize enough because we love our customers, we love our people and really impacted their plans," Jordan said. "There will be a lot of lessons learned that come out of this."

The chaos cost the company as much as $825 million in lost revenue and added expenses, the company said in a government filing last month.

This article originally appeared on ABC News

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