Southwest Airlines is in full meltdown…this is no hyperbole when the carrier is talking about canceling 2/3 of its flights for the rest of 2022. Let’s look at how Southwest is publicly and privately addressing its operational collapse.
Southwest Airlines Public Response To Meltdown: It’s The Bad Weather
In a note posted on its website and disseminated through various social media outlets, Southwest Airlines blamed its operational problems on extreme winter weather. While it insists it was fully-staffed and prepared for the winter storm, it notes that its “tools” have been unable to recover from the poor weather:
With consecutive days of extreme winter weather across our network behind us, continuing challenges are impacting our Customers and Employees in a significant way that is unacceptable.
And our heartfelt apologies for this are just beginning.
We’re working with Safety at the forefront to urgently address wide-scale disruption by rebalancing the airline and repositioning Crews and our fleet ultimately to best serve all who plan to travel with us.
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.
This safety-first work is intentional, ongoing, and necessary to return to normal reliability, one that minimizes last-minute inconveniences. As we continue the work to recover our operation, we have made the decision to continue operating a reduced schedule by flying roughly one third of our schedule for the next several days. And we’re working to reach Customers whose travel plans will change to offer specific information and available options, also available at Southwest.com/traveldisruption.
Our Employees and Crews scheduled to work this holiday season are showing up in every single way. We are beyond grateful for that. Our shared goal is to take care of every single Customer with the Hospitality and Heart for which we’re known.
On the other side of this, we’ll work to make things right for those we’ve let down, including our Employees.
With no concern higher than ultimate Safety, the People of Southwest share a goal to take care of each and every Customer. We recognize falling short and sincerely apologize.
Here, Southwest unequivocally apologies, but places the blame on the weather. Yet while many carriers struggled over the weekend, all faced similar weather conditions and none suffered a collapse on the level of Southwest (though Alaska Airlines came close).
Southwest Airlines Private Response To Meltdown: It’s Our Bad Crew Scheduling Technology
In a leaked call transcript to employees shared by aviation insider JonNYC, Southwest CEO Bob Jordan blamed its problems on its aging systems, lamenting that its antiquated systems made it impossible to efficiently reschedule displaced crew members across the country. Here is the most important part of his call:
“And, so when we finished with the winter storm, for the most part, then we found ourselves with crew at a place where we’re not able to re-crew the network. So, we had people that were legal. 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. In our desired state, we have a solver that would be able to do that very quickly and very accurately. Our system today cannot do that.”
As a result, Southwest Airlines plans to cancel roughly 2/3 of its flights every day for the remainder of 2022 (the next five days) or until it can sort out its crew positioning issues.
Here’s the full transcript:
Hey there, Southwest Airlines. Bob Jordan here. I know I sent you an update last night and Andrew [Watterson, Southwest’s COO] here has updated you all several times. But I wanted to give you more info on where we are today.
First, I know it’s very tough out there. We’ve had another very tough day today in the operation. And there are several more days ahead of us in all likelihood. Andrew will talk more about how we got here and the causes. But I just wanted to talk to you about number one: an acknowledgment that it is very difficult. I know that you all are working very hard. The circumstances are very difficult. The impact on our Customers is very difficult.
I know some of the things that you’re seeing don’t make any sense–like you’ve got a missing crew member and there’s somebody over here that could potentially fly the aircraft or take that spot and long hold times into Crew Scheduling. We’ll go through why that is, but just know that we know all those things and it’s part of working through the solution. You’ve got to stay, obviously, legal with our crews.
We’ve got to stay safe. We’ve got to work through solutions. Here’s what we’re doing next- we’re going to dramatically decrease the schedule the next several days. There will be a bridge from today to tomorrow to get there, but that’ll give us the best shot at getting the network reset, our crews reset-just taking some of the pressure off the system. Obviously, that’ll have even more impact on our customers. So that’ll be going out tonight. But we’ve got to get out of this. We’ve got to get to the point where we are reliable and we get our customers, our crews, our aircraft, everything back on track.
We’ve talked a little bit over the last year about the need to modernize the operation and invest. This is why. We can’t be our size and scope and have a lack of tools. So, you’ll be hearing even more about how we invest to fix the issues that confront us as an airline. But, Andrew, why don’t you talk for just a couple of minutes about how did we get here, why is this different for us versus somebody else?
Yes, so we started off with the Winter Storm Elliott that really put pressure on our ground operations. The extreme cold weather made us limit the amount of time our ground operations staff were exposed. We started to see equipment freeze, jet bridges freeze, fuel congeal, and as a result, we had to modify our network, sometimes shutting down crew bases operations for a while. And, so we got through that part of it. I think similar to other airlines.
The problem was in all those decisions, you end up impacting the crew network. And the crew network is a delicate thing because it’s governed by some strict regulations, and we have a complex network with crews traveling throughout it. And, so when we finished with the winter storm, for the most part, then we found ourselves with crew at a place where we’re not able to re-crew the network. So, we had people that were legal. 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. In our desired state, we have a solver that would be able to do that very quickly and very accurately. Our system today cannot do that.
As a result, we had to ask our Crew Schedulers to do this manually, and it’s extraordinarily difficult. They must verify that you are legal. They can’t just have the next person up, so to speak. They have to look through everyone’s board and reassign. So that is a tedious, long process. And every day we try to repair the Crew network. They would make great progress, and then some other disruption would happen, and it would unravel their work. So, we spent multiple days where we kind of got close to finishing the problem, and then it had to be reset. And so now is our latest plan because the last one last night did not work. We had a bad, awful day today.
We will now rotate into multiple days of a lower level of activity, which means we’ll have more than ample Crew resources to handle that amount of activity. It will be difficult for Crew Scheduling to reassign it for everybody, but when they get through that transition to reassign it, they will have multiple days to get People in the spot for resumption of our original lines and such. And so that’s here we need to get back to – what’s the most reliable is getting back to what you originally did and so, these multiple days are a way to transition into that.
All right, Andrew. Hey, thank you. It’s complex, as you can tell. I just want to leave you with a couple of things. Number one: nothing trumps safety. You’ve got to be safe and we are safe and just know that we won’t do anything to violate that. Number two: know that it’s complex. But we’ve got all hands-on deck.
You’ve got armies of folks working on the solutions. The detailed task as Andrew discussed. So, it’s all hands-on deck to work our way out of this. Next, it’s going to take a more dramatic action, which is this reduction of the schedule which will have impacts on our Customers especially. So, you’ll see that, but we will get out of this. that we won’t do anything to violate that. Number two: know that it’s complex. But we’ve got all hands-on deck.
Southwest is a great Company. There’s no doubt that this is someplace we’ve not been before. This is a very tough place to be, but we will get out of it, and we will focus on our tools, our processes. Winning our Customers back, winning you back and making sure that we are reliable and stable.
At last, just know that even in a difficult time, I hope you know that we appreciate you. We love you all. I know it’s hard and it’s hard to feel, but I’m telling you, we love you. We care about you and appreciate you more than we can tell you. And we’ll get through it. Thank you all. And I’ll be back to update you all more in the next few days.
Certainly Southwest was never going to be as detailed in its public statement versus its private discussion over the meltdown, but here we see the storm itself may have started the avalanche, but the main problem is not winter weather, but ancient technology that simply cannot handle a high degree of bad weather.
Publicly, Southwest is blaming its meltdown on bad weather. But while bad weather certainly contributed to the collapse, its pre-existing conditions, namely its antiquated crew scheduling technology (perhaps the same system that cannot accommodate redeye flights) is the real culprit for the mass delays and cancellations this week.
What do you think about Southwest Airlines’ meltdown response?
image: Southwest Airlines