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At This Hour

Buttigieg Vows To Hold Southwest Accountable For "Complete Meltdown"; United And American Airlines Capping Fares Amid Southwest "Meltdown"; Southwest Draws Federal Scrutiny As "Meltdown" Strands Thousands; Senate Panel Pledges To Look Into Cause Of Flight Disruptions; Democratic Senators Call For Southwest Airlines To Pay Back Customers. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired December 28, 2022 - 12:00   ET




AMARA WALKER, HOST: Hello, everyone. "At This Hour", Southwest apologizes for a nationwide travel calamity, warning passengers it may take days to solve the giant puzzle of canceled flights. And, silence from top Republicans raises a big question. Will incoming New York Congressman George Santos get away with lying to voters about nearly every detail of his life? Plus, a Supreme Court ruling keeps in place a Trump-era immigration measure, and leaves thousands of migrants in limbo. That's what we're watching "At This Hour".

Good morning, everyone. I'm Amara Walker, in for Kate Bolduan. Welcome to the seventh day of holiday travel chaos, and it won't be the last. For Southwest Airlines passengers, relief could still be days away. The airline cancelled more than 2,500 flights, both today and yesterday, accounting for more than 60 percent of its entire schedule. These issues began with the widespread deadly winter storm. But, weather is not to blame for the lingering problems with Southwest's system. The U.S. Transportation Secretary now vowing to hold the airline accountable.


PETE BUTTIGIEG, U.S. TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY: "Meltdown" is the right word. This is an unacceptable situation. You look at the number of passengers who are stranded. You look at how hard it is even to get somebody on the phone to address it. From what I can tell, Southwest is unable to locate even where their own crews are, let alone their own passengers, let alone baggage.


WALKER: The Southwest CEO issued an apology to passengers and employees as thousands have been left stranded, paying for extra travel expenses, and missing the holiday they set out to enjoy.

CNN's Gabe Cohen is live at Baltimore/Washington International Airport. Gabe, both United Airlines and American Airlines have just announced that they are capping fees on some routes served by Southwest Airlines. That has got to be a welcome news, especially for Southwest passengers who are trying to rebook on other airlines.

GABE COHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Amara. You're absolutely right. And, look, there are still thousands of passengers. It is quiet here to stranded passengers, I should say. It's quiet here today. It's not the zoo it's been in recent days. This line to rebook behind me was three to four hours long, just yesterday, not the case today. But, look, that's largely because so many of these cancellations were done preemptively overnight, yesterday by Southwest. If you look at the board, it tells the story. Look how many canceled flights we're talking about. As you say, more than 60 percent of their flights canceled today. That's more than 2,500 flights.

And, the bad news is, it's only going to continue tomorrow. They've already preemptively canceled 58 percent of their flights. We're talking about more than 2,300 of them, that according to FlightAware. And, Southwest tells us it could be several more days of these cancellations as they try to reposition their crews, try to reset their system, and get all the pieces in the right place. And, look, for so many of these travelers, they are stranded. They are getting some good news, but they're still trying to find a way home. Southwest has offered things like travel vouchers, hotels transportations to some folks.

But, I've heard from travelers who are paying their way through this, paying hundreds, even thousands of dollars, because they're stranded, many of them without their luggage. But, look, even in this awful situation, we are hearing some remarkable stories.

Just yesterday, I met a 72-year-old woman from Alabama stuck here, sleeping at BWI since Saturday. Well, a good Samaritan saw her story on the news, went out, bought her medication, took her out, and even bought her a plane ticket home on another airline. She leaves this evening. I talked to her a couple minutes ago. Take a listen.


PAM SHELBY, TRAVELER: She was my angel. She took me to get my meds, made sure I was on, and I'll never forget her. She just was so nice to me.

COHEN: How are you feeling these days, sleeping in here?

SHELBY: Exhausted. Tired. Just want to go take shower and sleep, and get this out of my mind, and try to forget it and go long.


COHEN: So, obviously, remarkable stories like that, but it's still such a difficult situation for all of these stranded travelers. Amara.

WALKER: It's just one story of thousands, right, but just heartwarming and to the trauma that that poor woman has endured. Thank you so much, Gabe Cohen, for that.

[12:05:00] So, the Southwest debacle has not gone unnoticed by Congress. Let's go to CNN's Melanie Zanona on Capitol Hill. Hi, Melanie. We're hearing a lot of talk about holding Southwest accountable. Will there be an investigation?

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Yes, almost certainly. The administration, of course, has already launched an investigation, but members of Congress are also vowing to get to the bottom of this Southwest meltdown and also hold the airline accountable. Senator Maria Cantwell who chairs the Senate Committee on Science, Commerce, and Transportation, she is vowing to look into the reasons for the cancellation, and also the impact on customers. And, of course, as Chair, she will have the power to call in witnesses and could issue subpoenas.

Meanwhile, two other Senators on that same Committee, Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal, they are calling on Southwest to compensate passengers for everything including refunded tickets, newly booked tickets, hotels, meals, transportation, any cost really associated with having to cancel these flights. And finally, Elizabeth Warren, she wants to look at the deeper rooted causes here, which she blames on the consolidation of the airline industry, and she is now calling on the Department of Transportation to use its antitrust tools to block the merger between JetBlue and Spirit. So, a fresh wave of scrutiny for Southwest and potentially the airline industry at large, as lawmakers are preparing for the new session of Congress. Amara.

WALKER: All right. Melanie Zanona on Capitol Hill, thank you very much. And, CNN Business Correspondent Rahel Solomon is here to break down what this could mean for Southwest's future. Rahel, the company is already seeing a financial impact.

RAHEL SOLOMON, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Amara, exactly. This is really shaping up to be what could be an expensive ordeal for Southwest Airlines. Take a look at the stock, and you can start to see the story, right? Shares are up about almost three percent right now, and that's in addition to the fall yesterday of nearly six percent. This as investors come to terms with the reality that this will likely be a very expensive ordeal, scenario for Southwest Airlines, and there are a few reasons why.

On the one hand, the company is acknowledging that it will have to speed up those plans to upgrade its systems, upgrade as IT technology. The CEO saying last night, clearly we need to double down on our already existing plans to upgrade systems, that scheduling system that we've heard a lot about over the last week or so. And then, Amara, you also have to think about the more immediate financial impacts in terms of reimbursing all of these travelers.

Scott Keyes, who runs the website "scottscheapflights" put it to me this way. "I think there is going to be a non-trivial financial cost to the airline for this meltdown, both in terms of the compensation that they're almost certainly going to be paying out to travelers who are impacted." But, Amara, also the crew, think about all of these people who are working the phones, working reservations, trying to provide some assistance, relief and customer service to all of these passengers around the country. So, you combine sort of all of those factors and you can start to understand the potential financial impact for Southwest Airlines and why the shares are lower today.

WALKER: They didn't even think about the overtime. I mean, yes, it's so many people being on hold for hours and hours, which means that you've got a lot of staff and crew members on that.

SOLOMON: Somebody has to work the phone.

WALKER: Yes, exactly, overtime. Rahel Solomon, thank you so much for that.

Today, the National Guard is going door to door in western New York, conducting wellness checks on people who lost power in this weekend's deadly winter storm. Erie County officials announcing this morning, the death toll from the blizzard is now 34. CNN's Athena Jones live in Buffalo with more. Hi there, Athena. What else did officials say?

ATHENA JONES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Amara. Well, they said that the snow removal process is continue. You can see behind me the mountain of snow, but this has been piled up just since the snow began, being removed once the blizzard was over. That is at least three stories high. It's dwarfing some of these two story houses down the road, just out of the shot. And so, - and that pile is already too full. They're no longer dumping snow there. They've moved it to another pile, just behind those trees there. This continues. This is why the driving ban is still in effect in Buffalo. That's going to be reevaluated overnight depending on how much snow they can clear.

The goal is to make sure at least one lane on every single street in Buffalo is cleared by tomorrow morning. The reason for this, of course, is so that emergency services can get through. We know, as you mentioned, that the death toll has risen by three. So, 34 now among the dead, and at least three of those, two men and one woman, have not yet been identified. So, authorities are asking that if people are missing a loved one that they contact the Police.

You mentioned those wellness checks by the National Guard that began at 9:30 this morning. That's because authorities are scared of what may have happened to folks who lost power. Listen to Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz talking about this.


MARK POLONCARZ, EXECUTIVE, ERIE COUNTY, NEW YORK: We are fearful that there are individuals who may have perished living alone or two people who are not doing well in an establishment, especially those that still don't have power.


But, it's - I think it's important. This is going to happen in the city and the suburbs. So, any place that lost power, the National Guard is going to come down.

(END VIDEO CLIP) JONES: And, in addition to those National Guard wellness checks, we also know that emergency responders are going door-to-door to do wellness checks of people who called for emergency services during the storm, but yet they couldn't be reached. We know from the Erie County Sheriff that at least 400, more than 400 of those calls to EMS went unanswered. So, they're checking on those folks who called, and they're checking on people with medical conditions. All of this, as they continue to dig out ahead of temperatures rising. They're trying to make sure they remove as much snow as possible to avoid flooding. Amara.

WALKER: I hope all 400 people behind these calls will OK. Athena Jones, thank you.

So, as Buffalo is digging out, a new winter storm system has left thousands without power in the west. CNN's Chad Myers is live in the CNN Weather Center. Chad, the country can't take a break. So, what's the latest on this storm out west?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: It came in last night, in some spots even the night before, but Mount Hood, Oregon, had wind gusts over 100 miles per hour. Now, the rain is in the Valley of the Sun. We'll just call it the Valley of the Rain today because you're getting some much needed rainfall. But, there are more storms on the horizon, actually three more storms before we finally end this on Tuesday, one after another, in a very drought-ridden State of California. We will take the rain. We will take the snow, and even push some of it into Colorado as well. Denver, you'll probably have about six inches of snow on the ground on I-25 for tomorrow.

If you melt it all down, you're seeing two to three and even 10 inches of liquid, but most of that won't come down as liquid. It will be all snow, especially Ciera could see 120 inches of new snow in the next 10 days. That will take some time to melt. That's the good news. The bad news is, it's going to be melting here in the East, everywhere that had so much snow, will try to melt it all at one time. Many of those grates on the roads are clogged with snow, the water not going to go down very well. So, temperatures are going to be in the almost 50 degree range for Buffalo. And, I'll talk about Ontario as well, Upstate New York also, all going to be above freezing, all melting that snow rather quickly. Amara.

WALKER: That is a lot of water. Chad Myers, Thank you.

MYERS: You are welcome.

WALKER: Coming up, GOP Congressman-elect George Santos is facing growing pressure after lying on his resume. At least one of his Republican colleagues is now calling for an ethics investigation, as House GOP leadership stays silent. The latest, next.



(COMMERCIAL BREAK) WALKER: George Santos facing growing condemnation after admitting to a number of lies and fabrications on his resume. Democrats say the newly elected Republican Congressman should resign from the New York House seat he won last month. But, so far, House GOP leadership is staying mum after Santos attempted to defend his job experience that he has been accused of embellishing.


REP-ELECT GEORGE SANTOS (R), NEW YORK: No. No, it's not false at all. It's debatable. I can sit down and explain to you what you can do in private equity, in capital intro, via servicing limited partners in general, partners, and we can have this discussion that's going to go way above the American people's head. But, that's not what I campaigned on.


SANTOS: That's not what I am saying.

GABBARD: --explain in a way that your constituents would actually be able to understand.

SANTOS: I can explain it in a way--


WALKER: All right. Joining me now is CNN's Congressional Correspondent, Lauren Fox, and CNN Political Analyst, and Axios Managing Editor, Margaret Talev. First off with you, Lauren, why the silence from Republicans in leadership?

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's one of the key questions up here on Capitol Hill, but it probably has a lot to do with what is coming up next week. On January 3, Kevin McCarthy is going to go to the floor and try to become the next Speaker of the House. He needs every vote he can get. Right now, he has five conservatives who are standing up saying that they will not support him. He can only lose four members. So, it gives you some kind of sense into why he may not be speaking up about George Santos, someone who has said that he would support Kevin McCarthy for Speaker. McCarthy needs every vote he can get right now. Amara.

WALKER: And, Margaret, I want you to listen to the answer Santos gave to explain, claiming he was Jewish.


SANTOS: My heritage is Jewish. I've always identified as Jewish. I was raised a practicing Catholic. I think I've gone through. Even I've not being raised a practicing Jew, I've always joked with friends and circles, even with - in the campaign, I'd say, guys, I'm Jew-ish. Remember, I was raised Catholic.

(END VIDEO CLIP) WALKER: We do want to mention the country's most prominent group of Jewish Republican donors, the Republican Jewish Coalition has barred Santos from its events, but it did stop short of calling for him to resign.

But, Margaret, I mean, I'm just listening to his explanations or justifications, or whatever you want to call it. It just sounds like he is just digging his hole even deeper.

MARGARET TALEV, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Amara, he is referred to all of this as an embellishment. It's not an embellishment. It's pathological. And, in American politics, jokes around Judaism or Jewish heritage almost always backfired dramatically. But, just for context, this is really just one of his problems. It is a potent political problem, but it is just one. I think the story is getting worse for George Santos, not better, and all signs are that he is going to be sworn in next week with the new Congress.


But, I think the big question is, even if he is sworn in, what Committees can he actually be assigned to? Like, can you imagine this guy serving on the Intelligence Committee, or any national security Committee, any Committee involving China, technology, judiciary, financial regulation, anything where you would need clear transparency? So, like, it's a real problem for the Republican Party.

WALKER: Yes. And, that - I mean, yes, can he be barred from serving in certain Committees? I mean, what are the options to discipline Santos if he is indeed seated next week?

FOX: Yes. I mean, this is going to be a key question for Kevin McCarthy next week. Even if he is sworn in as a member of Congress, what is leadership going to do? They have a few options. One of them is referring George Santos to the Ethics Committee.

The other option, really at their disposal at this point, is where they choose to seat him in terms of congressional Committees. They could choose not to seat him on any Committees. That is at the discretion of leadership. They could also choose some sort of low level less high profile Committees, and to be truthful up here on Capitol Hill, that is what normally happens with freshmen members. They don't come in and automatically get a seat at the table on the Intelligence Committee. That's not typical. Usually, what would happen is, you would go to some Committee, like the Science committee or something that may not be as high profile as some of the others.

WALKER: Ethics and character issues that are being brought up. I mean, Lauren touched about this earlier. But, how could this controversy complicate Kevin McCarthy's quest to become Speaker, because, obviously, that's the forefront of his mind?

TALEV: Well, Kevin McCarthy's biggest political priority right now is self-preservation, who needs to be able to hold together enough Republicans to vote for him as Speaker, and he really can't afford to lose very many folks. And so, including George Santos, whose vote, what could be crucial, even (inaudible) he may need multiple votes. We'll see how this process plays out. But, McCarthy's, after everything, he has kind of waited through the last few years, is this close, and this is sort of the last thing he needs.

I will say this, like, beyond the leadership politics of this, the real issue for George Santos may be outside of Congress. It really may be investigations into where has this come from. He has this mystery company that kind of sprung up within a year before the 2022 run, his last run for Congress in 2022 where listed essentially having no assets. Suddenly, he has earned enough to loan himself three quarters of a million dollars. So, I think this is where there is going to be a fork in the road. There is going to be what Santos has to reckon with. And, there is going to be what Kevin McCarthy has to reckon with. But, for McCarthy, like, he is looking at how to get through the next couple of weeks.


TALEV: For Santos, this may play out for quite some time.

WALKER: Yes. That's a really interesting point, Margaret. I mean, of course, it begs the question, what else could Santos be lying about? Lauren, I know you've heard from an incoming congressman about how there needs to be action regarding Santos. What are you hearing?

FOX: Well, in a public statement, and I think this is such an important juxtaposition right now, given the silence of leadership, you have a freshman congressman in a neighboring district, Nick LaLota, who is saying, "As a Navy man who campaigned on restoring accountability and integrity to our government, I believe a full investigation by the House Ethics Committee, and if necessary, law enforcement is required. New Yorkers deserve the truth, and House Republicans deserve an opportunity to govern.

And, I think that's such an important point to underscore in all of this, is that this is going to become a huge distraction next week when Republicans are hoping to take control of the Committees, hoping to get started on their legislating. I mean, this is going to be the question on every reporter's minds, and I think it's going to be tough for Republicans to move beyond this. And, this is one freshman member of Congress.

WALKER: Yes. And, the big question we can't forget is what the voters are thinking, right? I mean, they voted for him based on what they believed he was and said he was, and I'm sure a lot of them are now feeling duped and betrayed in some ways. Will there be some backlash to that? Lauren Fox and Margaret Talev, appreciate you both. Thank you.

TALEV: Thank you.

WALKER: Coming up, the Supreme Court says Title 42 can stay in place at least for now. Meanwhile, thousands of migrants face an uncertain future at the border. The latest, next.



WALKER: Turning now to a pivotal Supreme Court decision on immigration that puts thousands of migrants in limbo, the Justice is deciding to leave Title 42 in place. That's the public health order that restricts migration at the southern border, allowing American officials to expel people who enter the United States. CNN's Priscilla Alvarez is in Washington with more. Hi there, Priscilla. So, walk us through this decision, because this is the decision for now as it works its way through the legal system. Right?

PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That's right, and it's a victory for Republican-led states. So, the Supreme Court-