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Families with young children stayed at the airport for Christmas. Flight attendants and pilots sleep on floors. Huge piles of luggage – some containing gifts, some containing medicines – got stuck at the wrong airport. And disappointed travelers waited for hours.
Southwest Airline’s successive failures were examined a veritable bingo card of travel nightmares. While every airline was hit with bad weather and cancellations last week, only Southwest was crushed.
Southwest says operations are now back to normal. So what happened? What’s next? The company still has a lot to explain, but here’s what we know so far:
It wasn’t just the weather—outdated systems contributed to the crisis
A massive winter storm caused initial flight disruptions, but it was the company’s internal software systems that turned a routine problem into a spectacular disaster.
Many airlines use a “hub and spoke” system that routes flights through several major airports to reduce costs. Southwest has long prided itself on using a point-to-point system instead. It’s a leaner system by the day, but it also means Many complex planning challenges to get planes, pilots and flight crews to the right place at the right time.
By all accounts, Southwest used very outdated computer systems to manage this complex system.
Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan compared the airline’s failure to a “giant puzzle” that needed to be solved. And he said the company clearly needs to accelerate “its existing plans to improve systems.”
The Department for Transport says it has launched its own investigation into what went wrong.
The airline’s epic failure took many by surprise
Southwest is not an around-the-clock operation or a bare-bones discount airline where low customer expectations and unhappiness are part of the deal. It was respectable, in some cases even lovable company.
“They have the best reputation for customer service and management flexibility,” airline analyst Richard Abulafia told NPR. “They usually respond very well to crises.”
Customers are shocked at how horrible the experience is.
“I’ve got 50,000 miles on them,” said Hillary Chang, a traveler whose bag was lost in the Southwest disaster tornado. Now, he says, “I’ve been thinking about it…I’m open to meeting with another airline.”
It’s not just customers who are angry. Employees are also dissatisfied
The president of the union representing Southwest pilots called the Christmas crash “disastrous,” but told NPR that first, it was not said was surprised by this – and neither were most pilots.
“We still use not only IT technologies of the 90s, but also processes [from] when it’s one-tenth the size of our airline,” he said.
In the past two years, there have been numerous planning disruptions, albeit smaller than the Christmas disaster, that indicate a problem in the Southwest. The pilots were ready for the job, but Southwest had neither the planes nor the routes for them. The same situation occurred in this disaster, and many pilots and flight crew took to social media to express their displeasure with their company.
Customers can be reimbursed for “reasonable” expenses (…what does that mean)
By law, Southwest requires a full refund for a canceled flight. It has also committed to rebooking passengers at no extra charge and offering vouchers for food and hotel accommodation in the event of any avoidable cancellations or inordinate delays.
And Southwest looks set to pay more for that failure. But the company did not provide specific guidelines on what expenses they would cover, saying only that they would follow “reasonable requests for reimbursement for meals, hotels and alternative transportation (such as rental cars or tickets on other airlines).”
And of course, there’s no compensation for missing Christmas with your family or spending a night on the airport floor with an unconscious child and no luggage.
Southwest will apologize a lot, not a ton of answers
For its part, Southwest apologizes. Indeed sorry. The CEO apologizes. The Chief Commercial Officer apologizes. “We can’t apologize enough,” customer service representatives told angry passengers on Twitter. (I guess giving it his best shotthough.)
In the meantime, here are some frequently asked questions on Southwest’s Travel Disruption website It doesn’t seem as useful as Kafkaesque.
What should I do if I receive an error message when trying to book online? “We encourage you to try rebooking,” Southwest advises.
What to do if you can’t find a seat on flights? “We invite you to keep looking,” says Southwest.
But what if you’re stuck on hold for hours and can’t get through to an agent? “If you need to contact us urgently, you can continue to call.”