UPDATE Dec 28 – The total meltdown of Southwest Airlines’ operations is expected to take days and maybe even a week to recover, leaving thousands of passengers stranded at airports and their luggage lost. While the airline’s management offered its “heartfelt apologies” to customers, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) blames to collapse on the lack of investment in the carrier’s IT systems. Southwest Airlines’ meltdown – who is to blame?

As unprecedented winter weather swept the US from the North to the South since Friday, airlines were forced to cancel thousands of flights just two days before Christmas. But no airline has been hit harder by winter storm Elliot than Southwest.

Three days before Elliot kicked in, Southwest started implementing operational adjustments to its schedule and canceled 500 out of 8.000 flights for December 22 and 23. On the 22nd, the airline said the number of affected flights had grown to 12.000 as Denver and Chicago were hit by the extreme cold. On top of that, ground operations in Denver were suffering from high sickness leaves in the days leading up to the weekend. On Friday, the airline didn’t share details anymore about the number of affected flights, but said: “With more than half of the airports where we operate in the continental U.S. under duress from the storm, Southwest has been uniquely affected given our size and structure.”

Then, on Saturday, December 24, the system collapsed. “We were fully staffed and prepared for the approaching holiday weekend when the severe weather swept across the continent, where Southwest is the largest carrier in 23 of the top 25 travel markets in the U.S. These operational conditions forced daily changes to our flight schedule at a volume and magnitude that still has the tools our teams use to recover the airline operating at capacity.”

The blue Boeing 737s were grounded everywhere around the country, staff was stranded at airports where they weren’t supposed to be. As the cold weather swept eastwards, most airlines were able to resume operations. But not Southwest, although on Tuesday evening there were still 252 Southwest flights airborne, according to Flightradar24.

Lack of IT investments

SWAPA has been vocal in pinpointing where this has all gone wrong. As Vice President Mike Santoro and other union staff said in various media interviews, the problem lies with Southwest’s digital infrastructure which is unable to cope with the roster and scheduling system that it has been confronted with right now. “The system can’t handle the number of pilots and flights we have in the system with our complex route network”, Santoro told CNN. “We don’t have the normal hub-and-spoke system like the other major airlines. We fly point-to-point, which can put our crews in the wrong places without airplanes. Our software can’t keep track of it.”

SWAPA blames the airline management for not investing in adequate IT infrastructure, despite the rate at which Southwest has been growing. Santoro said that the carrier has been confronted with a major IT breakdown each year for the past five to six years, but no priority has been given to beefing up the technical infrastructure. Instead, Southwest has invested in more Boeing MAX airplanes, controlling its costs, and repaying dividends to shareholders.

The lack of investments can partly be blamed on the Covid crisis. In its 2021 annual report, Southwest said that “although the company had narrowed its near-team technology focus and deferred a significant number of technology projects in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, over the past several years the Company has committed significant resources to technology improvements in support of its ongoing operations and initiatives.” These investments were predominantly related to aircraft maintenance, record-keeping, and the booking system.

However, the 2021 report mentioned various priorities for investment in technology resources “including, among others, the Company’s systems related to (i) human resources management; (ii) flight planning and scheduling, including with respect to schedule changes and Customer re-accommodations; (iii) crew scheduling; (iv) revenue management; and (v) technology infrastructure.”

Hundreds of bags belonging to Southwest passengers are around at Orlando International Airport. (carlos76410289 via Twitter)

DoT: ‘Unacceptable’

If this Christmas meltdown isn’t a clear message to Southwest that these investments can’t wait any longer, then concerns raised by the Department of Transportation must be. The DoT said on Monday that the rate of cancelations at Southwest was “unacceptable”, as were “reports of a lack of prompt customer service. The Department will examine whether cancellations were controllable and if Southwest is complying with its customer service plan.”

After talks with Southwest CEO Bob Jordan, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said on Tuesday that “he conveyed to the CEO our expectation that they are going to go above and beyond to take care of passengers and to address this. (…) The bottom line is that the rest of the aviation system has been on the road to recovery since the worst days of the storm going into Friday last week. Most airlines are in the low single-digits in terms of cancelations rates, averaging about five percent for all other airlines. For Southwest, we appear to be north of seventy percent. (…) I made clear to them that our department will be holding them accountable for their responsibilities to customers, both to get them through this situation and to make sure this can’t happen again.” 

Interestingly, Buttigieg reached out to other airlines to lower their fares on some routes to help Southwest customers who have been stranded. “I am encouraged to see several airlines have now committed to this step. All of them should”, he said on Twitter. 

CEO Jordan apologizes

The Seattle Times’ Dominic Gates quoted on Twitter from an internal message from Bob Jordan sent on December 26, who said that the severe winter weather was dealt with well until it started impacting the airline’s crew network. “When we finished with the winter storm, for the most part, then we found ourselves with crew at a place where we were not able to re-crew the network. (…) We had aircraft that were available, but the process of matching up those crew members with the aircraft could not be handled by our technology.” 

Jordan posted a video message on Tuesday, again apologizing for the chaos and assuring customers and staff that “we are doing everything we can to return to a normal operation.” But as the rescheduling of flights has to be done manually aircraft by aircraft and crew by crew, it is expected this will take until at least the end of this week. Jordan added that Southwest’s community-centered network around cities is “highly complex and counts on all the pieces, especially aircraft and crews, remaining in motion to where they’re planned to go. With our large fleet of airplanes and flight crews out of position in dozens of locations (…), we reached a decision point to significantly reduce our flying to catch up. (…) We have some real work to do in making this right.”

Jordan referred only indirectly to the IT issues that are one of the reasons that the system collapsed: “Clearly, we need to double down on our already existing plans to upgrade systems for these extreme circumstances so that we never again face what is happening right now.” 

Southwest was looking forward to a strong Q4, with revenues up 13 to 17 percent on 2019 levels. It will be confronted with one or maybe even two weeks of meltdown, missed revenues, massive compensation, thousands of lost bags, disruption costs, and – above all – a reputation in tatters.

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Active as a journalist since 1987, with a background in newspapers, magazines, and a regional news station, Richard has been covering commercial aviation on a freelance basis since late 2016.
In 2022, he has gone full-time freelance. Richard has been contributing to AirInsight since December 2018. He is also writing for Airliner World and Aviation News. From January 2023, he will add a part-time role with Dutch website and magazine Luchtvaartnieuws. Twitter: @rschuur_aero.

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