A punishing winter storm that dumped several feet of snow on much of America led to flight cancellations over the Christmas holiday. By Monday, air traffic was more or less back to normal — unless you booked holiday travel with Southwest Airlines.
More than 90% of the canceled American flights on Wednesday were from Southwest, according to flight tracking website FlightAware. Southwest has canceled more than 2,500 flights. Next highest: SkyWest, at 77.
Southwest has warned that it will continue to cancel flights until it gets its operations back on track. The company’s CEO said this was the biggest disruption he had seen in his career. The Biden administration is investigating.
What gives? Southwest had a combination of bad luck and bad planning.
The storm hit Chicago and Denver hard, where Southwest has two of its biggest hubs – Chicago Midway Airport and Denver International Airport.
Even worse luck: The storm hit just as the so-called triple epidemic was sweeping America, leaving people and their families sick with Covid, the flu and RSV. Although Southwest says it was fully staffed for the holiday weekend, the illness makes it difficult to adjust to the increased stress on the system. Many airlines still lack sufficient staff to recover when events such as bad weather cause delays or flight crews max out the hours they are allowed to work under federal safety regulations.
But Southwest ( LUV ) also hurt itself with an aggressive schedule and underinvestment in its business.
Southwest’s schedule includes shorter flights with shorter processing times, which is causing some of the problems, FlightAware spokeswoman Kathleen Bangs told CNN.
“Those turnaround times put a strain on things,” Bangs said.
Stranded customers were unable to contact Southwest’s customer service to rebook flights or find lost luggage.
Employees also said they were unable to communicate with the airline, the president of the union representing Southwest flight attendants told CNN on Monday.
“The phone system the company is using just doesn’t work,” Lyn Montgomery, president of TWU Local 556, told CNN’s Pamela Brown. “They just don’t have enough manpower to give the flight attendants the schedule changes, and that’s created a ripple effect that’s creating chaos across the country.”
Speaking to employees Monday, Southwest Chief Operating Officer Andrew Watterson explained that the company’s out-of-date scheduling software quickly became the main culprit behind the cancellations after the storm cleared, according to a transcript of the call obtained by CNN from an aviation source.
Extreme cold, ice and snow grounded planes and left some crew members stranded, so Southwest’s crew planners worked furiously to put together a new schedule, matching available crew with planes that were ready to fly. But the Federal Aviation Administration strictly regulates when flight crews can work, complicating Southwest’s planning efforts.
“The process of connecting those crew members to the aircraft could not be handled with our technology,” Watterson said.
Southwest ended up with planes ready to take off with crew available, but the company’s scheduling software couldn’t match them up quickly and accurately, Watterson added.
“As a result, we had to ask our crew planners to do it manually, which is extremely difficult,” he said. “It’s a tedious, long process.”
Watterson noted that manual planning left Southwest building an incredibly delicate house of cards that could quickly collapse if the company ran into a problem.
“They would make great progress, and then some other disruption would occur that would undo their work,” Watterson said. “So we spent a few days where we were close to fixing the problem, and then it had to be reset.”
By cutting the company’s flights by two-thirds, Southwest should have “more than enough crew resources to handle that amount of activity,” Watterson said.
The problems facing Southwest have been going on for a long time, said Capt. Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association.
“We’ve had these problems for the last 20 months,” he told CNN. “We’ve seen these types of failures happen much more regularly and it really has to do with outdated processes and outdated IT.”
He said the airline business has not changed much since the 1990s.
“It’s the phones, it’s the computers, it’s the processing power, it’s the software that’s used to connect us to the planes — that’s where the problem lies, and it’s systemic throughout the airline,” he said.
Southwest CEO Bob Jordan, in a message to employees obtained by CNN, acknowledged many of Murray’s concerns and promised the company would invest in better systems.
“Part of what we’re suffering from is a lack of tools,” Jordan told employees. “We talked a lot about modernizing the operation and the need to do that.”
He said the airline is “committed and invested in” improving its systems, but “we have to be able to produce solutions faster.”
President Joe Biden on Tuesday urged consumers to check whether they are eligible for compensation as cascading airline delays disrupted holiday travel across the country.
“Our administration is working to make sure airlines are held accountable,” Biden chirped.
The US Department of Transportation said it was investigating.
“USDOT is concerned about Southwest’s unacceptable cancellation and delay rates and reported lack of prompt customer service,” the agency chirped. “The ministry will investigate whether the cancellations were controllable and whether Southwest is adhering to its customer service plan.”
To recover, Jordan told the Wall Street Journal that the company plans to work a little more than a third of its schedule in the coming days to allow crews to get into the right positions.
If this all rings a bell, it’s because this isn’t the first time Southwest’s service has melted down in epic fashion. In October 2021, Southwest canceled more than 2,000 flights in a four-day period, costing the airline $75 million.
Southwest blamed the drop in service on a combination of bad weather in Florida, a brief problem with air traffic control in the area and a lack of available staff to accommodate those problems. It admitted it had experienced service problems caused by understaffing even before hundreds of thousands of passengers were stranded by thousands of canceled flights.
Similar to this month’s service chaos, Southwest fared much worse than its competitors last October. While Southwest canceled hundreds of flights in the days following the peak of the disruption in October, competitors quickly returned to normal service.
Speaking to Wall Street analysts later that month, then-CEO Gary Kelly said the company had made adjustments to prevent a similar crash in the future.
“We have reined in our capacity plans to accommodate the current staffing environment, and our on-time performance has improved accordingly,” Kelly said on Oct. 21. “We are aggressively hiring toward a goal of approximately 5,000 new employees by the end of this year, and we are currently more than halfway to that goal.”
And, just like the last disruption, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association claims the cancellations were due to “poor management planning.”
— CNN’s Ross Levitt contributed to this report