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At This Hour

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg Calls Southwest Woes "Total Meltdown"; Interview with Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-TX) on Extension of Title 42; Erie County Blizzard Death Toll Rises to 34. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired December 28, 2022 - 11:00   ET




AMARA WALKER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Hello, everyone. AT THIS HOUR thousands of Southwest flights remain grounded, igniting nationwide anger from stranded passengers and now scrutiny from federal investigators.

Plus a Supreme Court keeps a Trump-era immigration policy in place. Thousands of migrants on the border will continue to be turned back.

And no condemnation, no rebuke, no nothing from top Republicans after an incoming lawmakers admits to gaslighting voters about his resume.

This is what we're watching AT THIS HOUR.

Good morning, everyone, I'm Amara Walker in for Kate Bolduan,

Christmas is over but the holiday travel nightmare is not. Relief could still be days away. Today, on the seventh day of the chaos, more than 2,500 flights canceled by Southwest so far. That is more than 60 percent of its entire schedule.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg calls it a "total meltdown." He's vowing to hold the airline accountable. The Southwest CEO issued an apology to passengers and employees. But the implosion continues to impact the holidays for countless families.

Some completely missed gatherings; some are racking up expenses while trying to find other ways to make it to their destination. CNN has live team coverage at airports affected by this.

Adrienne Broaddus is at Chicago's Midway Airport. Nick Valencia is in Atlanta.

Nick, we're going to start with. We're talking about seven days that people have been dealing with this nightmare. I know you've been talking to passengers.

How are they holding up emotionally?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They're not holding up very well. They just want to get home, get to their final destination. And this experience is really testing the loyalty of some longtime Southwest passengers.

Earlier, I spoke to a woman who described herself as a loyal customer. She said she's flown with them the last 20 years. But the experience she went through the last few days is really drawing that loyalty into question.

What she said when she got stranded in D.C., then eventually stranded here again and a layover in Atlanta, she's scheduled to make it to Tampa today, she'll finally breathe a sigh of relief.

Then there was a father and daughter I spoke to, who ran into an entirely different problem. She was 11 years old, scheduled to take off today as an unaccompanied minor. Listen to what she had to tell me.


VALENCIA: Are you doing all right?

You've got some tears in your eyes.

What's going on?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I didn't get to see my best friend in Florida ...

VALENCIA: Did they tell you you would be able to fly and then last minute they said you couldn't fly?

Is that what happened?


VALENCIA: Did they give you any reason why?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They just said that, I guess, their new policy -- and they don't know when the restriction will be lifted -- that unaccompanied minors can't fly right now.


VALENCIA: So even for those scheduled with flights to take off, they're encountering problems unexpected.

Look at the line here behind me. It is noticeably shorter than yesterday. It underscores these cancellations. There are not passengers in line, because people aren't flying out. Those that are there are scheduled to take off. But again, as I mentioned, they're going to breathe a sigh of relief once they finally get to where they're going.

Until then, they say they'll believe it when they see it. Amara.

WALKER: It's notable how different it is from yesterday. There's no rebooking options at this point. Let's toss it over to Adrienne.

We know about a third of all flights out of that airport have been canceled today. I see several bags there behind you, a few people milling around.

What is the scene today?

ADRIENNE BROADDUS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Still a lot of bags but there's some organization to the chaos. You see crews working behind us. There's an oversized baggage cart. These teams have been removing luggage throughout the morning.

So where is that luggage going?

The luggage they are removing was only transferring through Midway. They are sorting all of the bags by their originating cities.


BROADDUS: They will scan them into the system, then ship them off to their final destination.

Something else we have seen happening, take a look over here at carousel 5. You notice bags are arriving right now. We saw this happen throughout the day yesterday. And some of the bags were left behind, causing more problems for passengers. But there was some relief for two women we spoke with. Listen in.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They let me go on there, found myself (INAUDIBLE) just took me up on that ground and --

BROADDUS: Where was it?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They just out everywhere. They all just -- I had to walk and I said, Lord, I know they're here. And I got all four bags.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We ended up driving 14 hours. But it's been so tiring. I'm hungry and exhausted. I just want to get home. But I got into Chicago.


BROADDUS: So one of the passengers you heard from first, said she waited in line for two hours before she was able to retrieve her luggage. Right now, this is what we're used to seeing: folks waiting for their bags to arrive.

WALKER: Oh, my goodness. People have to be so incensed. Thank you both, Nick Valencia and Adrienne Broaddus.

With me now is Scott Keyes, founder and chief flight expert at Scott's Cheap Flights. Scott, you heard the vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association told CNN that the infrastructure for scheduling software is vastly outdated, that we're seeing a complete meltdown. It sounds like it needs to be completely rebuilt.

What would that even look like?

SCOTT KEYES, FOUNDER AND CHIEF FLIGHT EXPERT, SCOTT'S CHEAP FLIGHTS: Yes, look, I think the time to have done that would have been months and years ago, not right now during the middle of what's shaping up to be the worst meltdown in Southwest's history.

Trying to rebuild that is going to take quite a bit of time. This is something that hopefully will prevent future meltdowns. But I think you're going to expect to see, for passengers impacted today, this is going to be something that's not going to be any comfort for folks.

It will take many, many months before they can rebuild the type of software needed for the 21st century, even though the systems that they've been using up to now are clearly not up for the job.

WALKER: We heard from the Transportation Secretary, Pete Buttigieg, who says Southwest will be held accountable and an investigation is underway. Listen to what he told CNN.


PETE BUTTIGIEG, U.S. SECRETARY OF TRANSPORTATION: What I can tell, Southwest is unable to even locate where their own crews are, let alone their own passengers, let alone baggage.

All the other parts of the aviation system have been moving toward recovery and getting better each day. It's actually been moving the opposite direction with this airline.


WALKER: Buttigieg also said the Department of Transportation is prepared to pursue fines against Southwest.

What would investigators need to find?

KEYES: Yes, a lot hinges on what's called controllable. In other words, was it caused by weather or the by the airline?

One statistic: flight cancellations, as we speak to, American Airlines, zero percent of flights are canceled; Southwest, 62 percent canceled.

So if it is deemed these cancellations were controllable, then they're on the hook to make passengers -- to do right by passengers, in terms of providing hotels, providing meals, providing ground transportation.

All these sorts of reimbursements that they're required to make for passengers who are otherwise having to pay for those things out of pocket. I'm glad to see the Department of Transportation is really cracking down here, because that will help protect travelers who are otherwise facing some pretty hefty expenses.

WALKER: Not only have many people missed holidays with their loved ones but now a lot of people are being forced to dole out a lot of money to stay in hotels that they probably -- and paying for meals they probably weren't planning for.

Southwest telling customers to keep their receipts, including their hotel and rental car receipts.

What's your best advice for everyone who's been dealing with this mayhem?

KEYES: Absolutely, keep the receipts. Southwest says they will honor reasonable request for reimbursement.


KEYES: So the question is, what is reasonable?

For those trying to book flights around New Year's, those fares are nowhere near reasonable.

Will Southwest make passengers whole for those last-minute fares?

I think they need to tell folks exactly what is the plan.

Otherwise, for travelers, don't put it off. The longer you wait, the fewer options you have. Using your credit card, they often carry travel protections. Finally, if your trip is no worth it, under federal law, you're entitled to a full cash refund.

WALKER: Good to know. Scott Keyes, thank you so much.

The U.S. will soon decide whether to impose new COVID measures for people traveling from China. U.S. officials say the lack of transparent data makes it too difficult to identify any potential new variants.

China responded saying, "Measures taken by countries to prevent the epidemic should be scientific and moderate and should not affect normal people-to-people exchanges."

Japan, India, Taiwan and Italy's Lombardy region have already imposed new travel restrictions on travelers coming in from China.

The Supreme Court's decision on Title 42 is affecting thousands of people on both sides of the border with Mexico. We're live in El Paso, next.




(MUSIC PLAYING) WALKER: Developing this hour, a Supreme Court decision with dramatic

consequences on the southern border. The justices ruling 5-4 to leave in place a Trump administration health measure that's blocked migrants from entering into the United States. Leyla Santiago has more.

What exactly does this mean for the migrants where you are in El Paso?

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There is a lot of uncertainty right now as I speak to migrants. Let me walk you through what we're seeing.

This is a church and also a shelter. You can see behind me, a lot of the migrants are waiting to figure out what their next step will be. You will see a mixture of older men, younger men, families. This family right here is from Venezuela. I just finished talking to them.

They left Venezuela in September in search of a better life, given the economic circumstances there, the violence there, wanting a better life for the three kids they've been traveling with.

Family after family waiting to figure out what will be next here. One thing I want to make a point of, they have as many questions as I have seen from El Paso, the city itself, saying they're preparing for what could be another surge. But they still don't know exactly what all of this will mean for them.

They have two vacant schools that they are preparing to be shelters. But these migrants don't trust a lot of officials here, so they're not willing to get on the bus to go to the shelters. They don't want to end up being deported.

They have a lot of questions as to what Title 42 will mean for them now and in the long run. So the city and the migrants themselves are trying to figure out what will happen next.

I want you to listen to this exchange I had.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (Speaking foreign language).

She says it feels bad. They were hoping for something else, a different decision.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (Speaking foreign language).

SANTIAGO: She says she just can't live in Venezuela anymore because of the crime and the way of life there.


SANTIAGO: I spoke to one of the organizers of the NGO shelter, who said they have capacity if they can just get the migrants to be trusting enough to get them there. They also said this decision at the Supreme Court will extend the bottleneck at the border, where there are tens of thousands waiting to get into the U.S. WALKER: Leyla Santiago, thank you.

Joining me Democratic Congress man from Texas, Vicente Gonzalez, who represents the area right near the border.

What is your reaction to the Supreme Court's decision?

REP. VICENTE GONZALEZ (D-TX): I've been one of the Democratic members who have supported leaving Title 42 in place until we have a real permanent solution. I have the Safe Zone Act proposal, that would create a safe zone on the border of Guatemala, where we do everything at that juncture.


GONZALEZ: Migrants can go to the airport in Guatemala or a third country and fly to their final destination. And that does two things. It takes the pressure off our southern border allows more control for law enforcement to do what they're supposed to be doing.

It takes the cartel element out of the business as well. A federal judge here asked them, how much did you pay to get here?

And we calculated last year that cartels made over $5 billion bringing migrants to our southern border. So clearly we need to think out of the box, we need different ideas and solutions to the problems we are dealing with.


GONZALEZ: This has going on for six years now.

WALKER: It doesn't looks like there's a solution on the horizon. So when --


WALKER: -- Title 42, when it considers it again, do you want Title 42 in place as a Band-aid to what we are seeing is a flood?

GONZALEZ: That's what it is. It's a Band-aid. The Safe Zone Act is the only proposal I have seen since I've been in Congress that would alleviate the problem on the border.


WALKER: Do you have any Republican colleagues on board with you then?


GONZALEZ: -- we're having conversations. We have Republicans that are interested.

It's the only idea that I have seen that would bring solutions to the border. I've given this proposal to the administration. I hope they're thoughtful and considerate about it. This is really the only solution we have.

Most of the people come from poverty. That's just a fact. I'm for immigrants coming to this country. I just think we just need an orderly system that works. And if you seek asylum for legitimate reasons, it should be granted.

We have to have (INAUDIBLE) the way they are now and they have been for the last few years.

WALKER: Right. Let me bring up a very interesting point from conservative justice Neil Gorsuch.

"The current border crisis is not a COVID crisis. Courts should not be in the business of perpetuating administrative edicts, designed for one emergency, only because elected officials have failed to address a different emergency.

"We are a court of law, not policymakers of last resort."

And, of course, the translation here is the blame rests with Congress.

GONZALEZ: Right now, I think we can justify it easily. We still have a COVID crisis in this country. And we're against the height of it in recent months. So clearly, I think the administration has plenty of cover.

But at the end of the day, it is a Band-aid. And we need a permanent solution. My idea of doing this on the border of Guatemala with Mexico, having the same operations I have here in my Southern District, just do it 1,500 miles away from here.

This is permanent immigration infrastructure that, if we bill today, will be there for a very long time. Right now, the majority of the migration is from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.


WALKER: We need a permanent solution and a long-term solution. Congressman Vicente Gonzalez, we appreciate your time. Thank you.

GONZALEZ: Thank you.

WALKER: So the death toll in the Buffalo area is climbing. We are live next with the latest on New York's massive hurdles, even as the airport is finally reopening after being closed for five days.





WALKER: The death toll in Erie County, New York, climbing again; 34 people now dead as a result of this devastating winter storm. Rescue crews are still searching for people stranded during the blizzard. Athena Jones is there live.

How are things today?

ATHENA JONES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Look at this huge pile of snow. It's a mountain of snow, dwarfing some of the two-story houses around here.