Southwest Airlines had an historic meltdown at one of the busiest times of the year, the Christmas/New Year’s holiday. This week, all flights were grounded again due to a technology issue.
Southwest Halts All Flights… Again
Southwest Airlines cancellations and delays began piling up again this week as the largest domestic US carrier shutdown its operation to solve a firewall issue. This is the second time in less than five months that technology has cause the airline to suspend its flights and recover. Luckily, this one was resolved in a few hours, rather than the weeklong disaster that occurred at the turn of the year.
While delays affected 44% of Southwest’s operation, relatively few flights were cancelled entirely.
When Is Southwest Going To Take Its Technology Issues Seriously?
Southwest Airlines and its management have kicked the can down the road on technology upgrades for so long that it’s not only causing operational disruption but becoming a question of decision-making at the executive level. As some may recall, Southwest doesn’t fly redeyes because until 2017, the reservation system wouldn’t allow it to do so. Even upon expanding to Hawaii, fights are daytime-only which offers an interesting change of pace for some travelers, but almost every other flight to the mainland is intended to fly overnight due to the time change from the US Pacific time zone. A lack of redeyes are now a cultural preference but its roots are in antiquated technology.
The Christmas and New Year’s debacle should have been the shot across the bow that Southwest needed. The DOT stepped with strong wording and Southwest cut checks back to consumers, picked up hotel tabs, and gave out free miles to the tune of more than $700 bn to rectify the event.
Some consumers were damaged still, because they were forced to buy a walk-up ticket at the counter of another airline that wouldn’t be covered by their voucher or reimbursement. The entire airline system absorbed the majority of Southwest’s passengers initially and then slowly weened them back to Southwest over the next few days as operations got a handle on the situation.
The firewall issue and ground stop for all aircraft is not the end of the world, but for the Dallas-based behemoth it indicates that problems persist in other areas of the operation and that the IT matter really isn’t solved.
Southwest enjoyed nearly four decades without a quarterly loss before the pandemic. The airline rejected the government funding because it had the cash to weather the storm and didn’t want its hands tied to the terms of deal. They maintain plenty of cash and financial instruments to update the core technology of the business and it’s critical they do so, yet problems have cropped up again.
Will The DOT Punish?
Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, indicated there would be consequences for airlines that cause mass disruptions going forward. This incident probably didn’t qualify as a mass disruption, but a still-healing relationship with the department and the airline is no doubt being tested again.
I doubt the Secretary will take a stand against Southwest on this particular occasion, but it likely further shortens the fuse for future events.
All major carriers have technology issues with which to contend. However, Southwest’s continues to be seriously struggling and puts the airline in the spotlight for performance issues again. If management at the airline won’t move quicker and more decidedly for technological change that keeps passengers moving and airplanes flying, their hand may be forced – if not by the Department of Transportation, then by the shareholders.
What do you think? Is Southwest taking action strong enough to combat its technology issues? Would you second guess booking them on the basis of its ability to operate?