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At This Hour

Southwest Tops in Canceled U.S. Flights; Santos Acknowledges Lying on Resume. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired December 27, 2022 - 11:00   ET




AMARA WALKER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Hello, everyone. AT THIS HOUR, airline meltdown: Southwest Airlines canceling thousands of flights that could strand flyers until Friday in New York, where officials expect a death toll to climb.

And he said he's not a criminal but incoming New York congressman George Santos admits to lying on his resume about his jobs and his education and his business dealings.


WALKER: And good morning, I'm Amara Walker in for Kate Bolduan.

A travel nightmare: around 90 percent of U.S. flights canceled today are on Southwest Airlines with days before folks can even rebook. But just looking at -- just look now at the never ending line of people on your screen right now, snaking through Atlanta's airport at the Southwest counter.

Passengers are being told to expect even more delays and cancellations. The travel nightmare has caught the attention of the Transportation Department, investigating if Southwest could have better handled the cancellations. The president of Southwest Pilots Association tells CNN that a meltdown like this has been brewing for some time.

Weather was just the tipping point. We have CNN correspondents Nick Valencia and Gabe Cohen standing by.

And let's start with Gabe at Baltimore Washington International, which is one of the worst affected airports.

Gabe, describe for us how bad things are where you are and how many more flights are grounded today?

GABE COHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the situation seems to get worse and worse for Southwest passengers, the airline canceling roughly 62 percent of their flights today, close to 2,500 of them. And they've already gone ahead and canceled roughly that amount for tomorrow.

In fact, Southwest tells me it could be days of this, where they're only flying a little more than a third of their scheduled flights. And for tens of thousands of passengers, they're stranded. And the reality is exactly what you're seeing behind me, lines like this.

Every one of these people are dealing with a canceled flight and trying to figure out what to do next. For those calling in to customer service, many are sitting on hold for hours. I've been calling all morning and I'm getting a busy signal.

I spoke with a man trying to get from Baltimore to Florida today to get on a cruise there afternoon, an 18-day nonrefundable cruise. Flight got canceled; now he may miss the whole thing. Listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is very frustrating. This was something that I was looking forward to. I feel like they don't have a remedy for it. "Oh, we'll give you a voucher." Well, a voucher doesn't replace that I need to be on this porting out at 3:00 this afternoon.


COHEN: Now Southwest has largely been blaming that huge winter storm last week for these cancellations, saying it left crews stranded in the wrong cities and they've been trying to regroup.

But the reality is they are the only major U.S. airline that is dealing with this sort of fallout, these mass cancellations at this point. And the head of the pilots' union that represents Southwest pilots has said this is really not about a winter storm; this is about outdated processes and outdated I.T. at Southwest.

And CNN did obtain a transcript of a video message that the CEO sent to employees on Christmas Day, acknowledging operations issues and saying part of the problem was the need to modernize their system.

And now as you mentioned, the Department of Transportation is getting involved, examining if these cancellations have been necessary. It is a messy situation. But no one is dealing with a bigger issue than the folks behind me, these passengers. Thousands of people stranded, many just trying to get home.

WALKER: You got to feel for them, people who are stranded and also those who missed holidays with their loved ones. Thank you, Gabe Cohen.

Let's turn over to Nick Valencia at Atlanta International Airport.

I'm sure you're hearing a lot of stories and frustration. And you've talked to a couple that has been trying to get home for five days.

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: These poor, poor people. This is not the way to spend a holiday break. But that is exactly what these folks are doing. This line behind me has grown but it is considerable, when you consider that everyone in this line, if you want to walk with me, I'll just show you here, everyone in this line in Southwest is dealing with a cancelation. So everybody showing up here in this line knows that they're going to

be dealing with a headache. According to passengers, it is two hours before they get to the front of the line. As you mentioned, I spoke to a couple that had been traveling for five days and they count themselves among the lucky ones.

They haven't seen their personal belongings in five days but they're hoping to get back to Wichita.

And then I talked to another couple, they said they were in New York, spending holiday in New York and they wanted to spend Christmas there in the big city, only to be stranded there.


VALENCIA: They eventually got on a bus and it took them about 14 hours to get down to Atlanta. And now they're stuck and this is what they had to tell me when I spoke to them earlier.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, we came to New York City to be there for Christmas, just us two. And then we decided to travel back home to see our son in Vegas. And flights got canceled. And they told us, hey, you want to hop on a bus to Atlanta for a 14-hour drive?

And so we did it.

VALENCIA: What was the alternative?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Wait in New York City for six days. Now we wait, they said. Well, we're not going to rebook you; you're responsible for rebooking yourself. So no vouchers or anything. So it is either $500 a night in New York City or come here.


VALENCIA: So you see back here live, you see the Jimenez family has finally made it to the front of the line. It looks like they're getting tickets -- not sure where; we'll talk to them after the report is done.

But we spoke to them well over an hour ago and it is taking about two hours to get to the front. And minute-by-minute, people show up with similar stories, stranded here and flights canceled. And they know they're in a long day, if not long days ahead.

I just spoke to a family, they're ending their vacation and hoping to get back to up Virginia and not getting the news that they expected. Long wait lines here in Atlanta, just like across the country.

WALKER: What a mess. Gabe Cohen and Nick Valencia, thanks to you both for your reporting.

Let's talk more about this with David Slotnick, a senior airline reporter for "The Points Guy." Thank you for joining us. Before we get into your advice for people

caught up in this crisis, let's call it, let's take a listen to what the vice president of the Southwest Pilots Union told CNN this morning. Listen.


CAPT. MIKE SANTORO, V.P., SOUTHWEST AIRLINES PILOTS ASSOCIATION: It is just, it is frustrating for the pilots, the flight attendants and especially our passengers. And we're tired of apologizing for Southwest, the pilots of the airline. And our hearts go out to all of our passengers, it really does.


WALKER: I mean, it is astounding when you see that Southwest Airlines accounts for 90 percent of the flight cancellations today. So Southwest is clearly the outlier here.

Why is it so bad with Southwest?

I know Gabe touched on it, that they do outdated operations but give us the big picture.

DAVID SLOTNICK, SENIOR AIRLINE REPORTER, "THE POINTS GUY": Sure. The real issue is that Southwest has a different network structure than all the other airlines. They typically fly in a point to point kind of way. They have each airline and each crew member assigned to a flying line, where it goes from point A to B to C to B to E throughout the day.

It means costs are a lot lower and planes are used a lot more and normally it works well. But it is prone to cascading ripple effects when there is any kind of disruption like weather.

Most other airlines fly in a hub to hub kind of fashion or in certain spheres, where they're sticking to a particular geography. And it just creates a more resilient system during something like this.

WALKER: This is a perfect storm, no pun intended. You have the storms but also the holiday season, a peak season to travel and your heart going to everybody at the airports and they all have different situations.

But what kind of advice you could offer to them, especially those flying Southwest?

What options do they have?

SLOTNICK: You know, the problem is, this is really one of first times where there is not much great advice that we could give. The problem is there aren't really a lot of passenger protections in the U.S.

You're entitled to a refund if your flight gets canceled. But it is voluntary on Southwest. They said they're looking into this. If you book a flight or hotel room, just save every receipt and document everything and it is possible you'll get paid back.

But it is hard to rely on that. The other thing is a lot of times people book flights with a credit card, where there is travel insurance built in. So take a look at what card you used and what kind of options you have there. That might be able to cover some of your expenses.

WALKER: What about the Transportation Department investigating Southwest?

I know this is a long-term solution if there is one, not short-term.

But could it penalize Southwest or lead to reforming the system in a revolutionary way?

SLOTNICK: You know, generally not. A lot of the times this is a messaging kind of thing. They can make sure that Southwest sticks to its obligation to refund all of its passengers. That is not much consolation for anybody who is stranded right now or frustrated. But that is the really the ability that the DOT has.

WALKER: And something you re-tweeted caught our eye, not to take your anger out on the airline agents.


WALKER: They're having a week from hell, too, not to mince words.

SLOTNICK: Yes. I mean the clip that you played before from the Southwest union vice president, I'm hearing that from every worker I speak to there. Everybody is frustrated. I have pilots who are frustrated. They're trying to help and pick up trips but flights keep getting canceled.

I'm hearing from flight attendants, who are devastated, trying to help passengers, and customer service agents who have been driven to tears by angry passengers. It's a tough situation. They're in it just as much and it is not much consolation if you're somebody who is stranded right now. But it is something to remember.

This is a systemic problem. It is not the individual gate agent or the person who is helping you.

WALKER: Exactly. It is the much bigger than that gate agent. Quickly, David, before we go, I did see one piece of advice that I found very useful, that if flights are canceled, whether you're flying Southwest, Delta, United, what have you, you are entitled to a refund, meaning you don't have to take a voucher?

SLOTNICK: Yes, absolutely. So a lot of the times the airlines will offer you a voucher. That is a quicker way to get value back. But if your flight is canceled, there is no questions about it, you're owed a cash refund. And the airline has to pay you that.

WALKER: Appreciate your advice, even though there is not much you could get for the Southwest passengers. But appreciate your time. Thank you so much.

Let's turn to the storm blanketing New York and cities including Buffalo still digging out. Snow still falling in some places. Moments from now, officials in Erie County are expected to hold a press conference, where they are expected to update the death toll from this storm. Currently it stands at 27.

Joining me now from Buffalo is Michael Schwartz, a reporter for CNN affiliate WKBW.

Appreciate you joining us this morning.

Are things any better this morning?

MICHAEL SCHWARTZ, WKBW CORRESPONDENT: Yes, good morning to you, Amara. Yes, that is the short answer. They are better this morning. We could see the pavement for the first time. The sun is out. There is just about 100 percent visibility.

But in these neighborhoods, it is still a very traumatic situation. This is a main stretch. It is Church Street here in Buffalo but this is not a good representation of what the entire city looked like, still blanketed with snow.

You could see the snowdrifts that have formed on top of the plows or moving snow. The snow on some of the side streets was up to my hip. People still cannot get out. Today is the day that major supermarkets like Tops and Wegmans in the area are able to open finally for people to get food.

We've heard from people who were running out of food for their children in a storm that truly has been life or death. Now 28 confirmed deaths in all of Western New York. And, unfortunately, yes, we are expected to hear that death toll number rise.

We've heard from people found in their vehicles, people on the streets. It was the consistency of these winds and the freezing temperatures and the snow that didn't stop. And it was as if someone left a fog machine on for 40 hours. It crippled the entire city and didn't let first responders out for a while.

I just spoke to one woman, just a few blocks away, within Buffalo, who came crying up to me, saying that, on Christmas Eve, her partner suffered a heart attack. No one could get to him. 9-1-1 wasn't able to come in the middle of the blizzard. He passed away.

She had to stay in her home with her partner's body until two days later, when they could finally recover him.

WALKER: My goodness. Oh, my goodness. That is so heartbreaking to hear. Just an awful holiday season for so many people because of this unprecedented weather. Michael Schwartz, I appreciate your reporting. Thank you so much.

Up next, he is admitting to lying about his employment and his education history and biography. But incoming GOP Congress man George Santos insists he's not a fraud.





WALKER: Incoming GOP congressman George Santos now says, yes, he lied about quite a lot, he told voters. Originally he said he graduated from Baruch College and NYU and now he said he didn't graduate from there or any college at all.

He also claimed to have worked at Goldman Sachs and Citigroup. He now says he was never employed by either. And he said he owned 13 properties and now he admits that he's not a landlord.

Now the excuse. Santos said he did what plenty of others do to get a job, just fib about his resume.


REPRESENTATIVE-ELECT GEORGE SANTOS (R-NY): I'm not a criminal. Not here, not abroad, in any jurisdiction in the world have I ever committed any crimes. To get down to the knit and gritty (sic), I'm not a fraud.

I'm not going to make excuses for this but a lot of people overstate in their resumes or twist a little bit or ingrangiate (sic) themselves. I'm not saying I'm not guilty of that.


WALKER: Joining us is CNN's Eva McKend and Camila DeChalus of "The Washington Post."


WALKER: Welcome to you two ladies.

Eva, I don't even know where to begin. Yes, he's probably not a criminal but he's saying he's not a fraud.

EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: That is right. He has been pretty defiant here. He is conceding somewhat tepidly that the work history and the education history is false. He said it is embellished. But it is false.

To be clear, he indicates that he's very much moving full steam ahead. He still intends to serve in Congress and I think, crucially, a message that he's sending to the voters, right, the people that supported him in Queens and Long Island, he's indicating to them that he's still going to be a reliable Republican vote in Congress.

He essentially argues that all of this has nothing to do with how he would legislate. And even telling one outlet that he hopes that the -- he gets equal -- as much attention when he introduces a public safety bill in the new year. So that might be enough for some folks in Long Island and Queens. We'll have to see.

WALKER: Camila, will there will be consequences?

If you or I or Eva, any of us fibbed, there is embellishing and fabricating things, we would probably lose our jobs.

How is his admission plays among House Republicans?

CAMILA DECHALUS, "THE WASHINGTON POST": That is a really great question because I talked to several House Republicans last week. And they simply declined to even comment on the matter, saying they're more focused on trying to pass a spending bill and keeping the government open rather than paying attention to these reports.

So there are still large questions of whether he's even going to be assigned and what House Republican leadership will do to just set the tone on whether this is acceptable or not.

But when it comes to the legality of this issue and the legal consequences he may face in the upcoming weeks, that is still unclear. As everyone knows, when you are running for office, you are required to submit financial disclosures as accurate as possible to the clerk of the House.

And when you don't do that or falsify the information that you put on those disclosure forms, you could be violating a number of laws. So House Democrats have said time and time again they want to see ethics and criminal investigations launched into Santos. So this is something that people will be looking for in the upcoming weeks.

WALKER: He's putting his foot down saying he's not going to quit and that it is not about his resume but it is about his character and integrity and how far he's willing to go. I want to listen to more of Santos, where he's explaining his previous claim that he was proud of his Jewish heritage. Listen.


SANTOS: So as I've said many times -- and I think you've heard me say this, I always joke, I'm Catholic. But I'm also Jew-ish, as in "ish." I grew up knowing that my grandparents were Jewish and they were refugees to Brazil and that was always the story that I grew up with.

And I've always known it very well and I've told it the way it was told to me.


WALKER: Really?

Jew-ish, Eva?

MCKEND: His background is sort of a moving target here. He might have said that in the past but he also said that he is half Jewish, a Latino Jew. And he's shared the story that his time and time again that his maternal grandparents fleed (sic) the Holocaust.

CNN says that claim is contradicted by genealogy records. So this just leads to more questions than answers here.

WALKER: And Camila, in terms of hearing from House Republicans, especially any leaders in the House, silence?

I mean especially with Kevin McCarthy vying for this contentious seat as speaker.

Is he saying anything?

And obviously we know the Republicans really need Santos' vote.

DECHALUS: That is exactly right. You have McCarthy, almost these House Republican lawmakers are taking a side street of what McCarthy is doing. And he's declined to comment on this issue further.

You know that Santos has before in the past spoken highly of McCarthy and says that he's willing to vote for him as House Speaker. And McCarthy needs every vote that he could get. And so we're, as reporters, going to be asking McCarthy whether he will speak out. But right now he's not saying anything.

WALKER: And his colleagues to be in Congress on the Democratic side are calling for Santos to resign before he's even sworn in next week.


WALKER: They don't want him to be seated. These are tweets from Ted Lieu and Eric Swalwell.

He said he won't quit. But he already has major credibility issues before he's even seated.

How is that going to impact his lawmaking?

MCKEND: Republicans have to determine how much of a distraction they will allow this to become. But as Camila pointed out, he could be a crucial vote for Kevin McCarthy for House Speaker.

I imagine when House Republicans do decide to comment on this and stop being camera shy is sort of deflection, right, pointing to others, Democrats, who politically have embellished their careers as well. I think it is very generous to call these embellishments; these are pretty bold lies.

WALKER: Yes, I don't think that's the right word even though he himself said he had a poor choice of words. Kind of ironic. I appreciate you both of you. Thank you so much.

All right. Right now officials in Erie County, New York, are giving an update on the historic and deadly snowstorm there. And there is an updated death toll now. CNN's Polo Sandoval life in Buffalo with the very latest -- Polo.

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: These are numbers that have continued to change. And now officials here in Erie County confirming at least three additional storm-related deaths. The total number now will sit at 28.

The reason why this is one more than we had this morning is because there were some deaths that we reported that authorities thought were related to the storm. But upon further review, it looks like two of them were not. At this point, the most important number to share with you is 28, 28 storm-related deaths.

And always a concern those could continue to rise. And the greater effect for so many is the life-saving medical services that were interrupted by the storm as far as back as Friday.

Mark Poloncarz, the county executive here, confirming those are back online. However, they are operating with significant delays -- or I should say with delays because the roads are still treacherous in some part of the city.

The plowing efforts are continuing and they're bringing in authorities from other parts, including what may be up to 100 state police coming into Buffalo to assist with traffic control.

And also, this is important, ticketing. You see the driving ban is still in place for the city of Buffalo. You've seen authorities scale back considerably on those measures in other places but not here. That is why folks, they're instead going to be out and about. They're going to do so on foot. Carefully, though.

WALKER: As they are, they are right behind you. Polo Sandoval, thank you for that update.

Coming up, officials continue to deal with a surge of migrants at the southern border with thousands more waiting to cross. This as the Supreme Court could rule any moment on the future of Title 42. We're live at the border next.