Southwest Airlines hopes to end a week-long blackout and return about 4,000 flights on Friday to avoid a repeat of one of the worst operational disasters in its history.
After canceling more than 15,700 flights in the eight days since Dec. 22, the Dallas-based carrier said Thursday that it finally has pilots, flight attendants and planes in place to return to a normal schedule on Friday. To make that possible, the company said it had to close two-thirds of its flights between Tuesday and Thursday to avoid cancellations that have left millions of passengers stranded during the Christmas holiday and increased by the day.
Leaders blamed the problems on the crew rescheduling technology system, which was unable to complete the task of reassigning thousands of pilots and flight attendants after bad weather and winter weather hit major bases in Denver and Chicago.
But during a media call Thursday, CEO Bob Jordan, chief operating officer Andrew Watterson and other top executives at Southwest were brief on whether another collapse would happen again.
“I’ve never in 35 years seen anything like the impact on the network, the level of operations, the complexity of the solution, all of that — none of that is an excuse,” Jordan said on the call. . “But there will be priorities that come from responding to that, because it’s not something we want to repeat for our customers or our employees.”
Southwest leaders aren’t sure how many passengers will need to be accommodated in the coming days because the level of disruption was so deep that many chose other modes of transportation, bought expensive last-minute flights on other airlines or skipped holiday vacations altogether. the crash lasted more than a week and spanned the Christmas weekend.
About 2.3 million passengers lost their lives in the meltdown.
“We don’t know how many people have to travel yet,” Watterson said. “It depends on who still wants to travel. And for the first five days of the year, I can easily see that there is room if people have to travel.
By late Wednesday, Southwest had even told employees, many still stranded in hotel rooms far from home, that it would try to reschedule flights for Friday. Southwest notified customers Thursday morning and then made it public later that day. Southwest put tickets back on sale Friday and the weekend after suspending sales earlier in the week to prevent cancellations of those orders and to allow room for pilots and flight attendants to move.
Southwest has spent the last two days working on a plan to get the pilots and flight attendants back to their seats to continue the trips they had planned before the crash. Cutting nearly 2,500 flights a day has given the carrier the resources to monitor flight attendants and pilots scattered around the country and develop a strategy to end the recurring problems.
Unsuitable with automated systems for rescheduling pilots and flight attendants, Southwest trained a team of about 1,000 employees to help reschedule crew members manually, Watterson said, calling them individually.
Going through this series of weather and operational disruptions, Watterson said the company could re-implement the process in the event of another outage.
Otherwise, it will take the airline years to fully re-implement the new crew scheduling technology systems.
“It’s just a big and complicated project,” Jordan said. “It’s not meant to be an excuse; it’s just a fact.”
“I think the discussion of that will certainly be about what we can do to accelerate that and accelerate development in critical areas of the plan.”
According to him, the company is working on improving and replacing the old technology, but it will take time.
“We have a very large infrastructure spending plan every year — a capital spending plan and technology and other areas, but there’s a lot in technology,” he said. “And the systems are complex. In some cases we have legacy systems. And that’s just the amount of time it takes to make those changes. In other words, these are multi-year projects.”
The delays and cancellations have already prompted scrutiny from the Department of Transportation and scrutiny from politicians in Washington.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg sent a letter to Jordan on Thursday, urging the company to take care of customers financially burdened by the travel suspension.
“These front-line workers are not to blame for mistakes at the management level,” Buttigieg said in the letter. “I hope and expect that you will follow the law, take the steps outlined in this letter, and promptly notify me of Southwest’s efforts to do right by the customers it wronged.”
After meeting Wednesday with representatives of the company’s three unions, Reps. Colin Allred, D-Dallas, and Jake Ellzey, R-Arlington, issued a joint statement Thursday, saying in part:
“There has always been strong bipartisan support in Congress for the growth of Southwest Airlines …
“But it is clear that Southwest has been facing unacceptable risks for some time and trying to cope with an unacceptably thin margin of error in both personnel and technology, and this crisis was both predictable and preventable.
“Hundreds of millions in dividends paid to shareholders and healthy profits in the first three quarters of this year clearly show that Southwest could have fixed the current problems, but chose not to.” They called on Southwest executives to fairly compensate passengers and take steps to prevent future crashes.
As customer cancellations pile up with mountains of baggage at airports across the country, Southwest Airlines has tried to communicate with customers that it plans to “accomplish reasonable requests” for hotels, meals, transportation and even tickets on other airlines.
“We have told customers that if we cancel flights, they will be able to get a full refund,” said chief commercial officer Ryan Green. “If they had to arrange alternative travel, we will reimburse customers for that travel. We will ship the customer’s bag to them at no cost to them. And over the last few days we’ve launched websites to make it as easy as possible for our customers.”
According to him, the company will assess the costs of paying for other extenuating circumstances related to the cancellation of the flight.
However, Green acknowledged that there are challenges, such as determining which requests for reimbursement are acceptable and how long it will take to process all claims.
“It’s going to be a couple of weeks here before we actually get back to customers,” he said. “We’re working as hard as we can and automating as much as we can to process them quickly. But our goal is to resolve this as soon as possible.”
As of Thursday afternoon, Southwest had canceled a total of 39 flights for Friday, according to Flightaware.com. It canceled more than 2,000 flights every day until Monday this week.
Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said the carrier was trying to get crew members back to their airports on Wednesday so they could disperse Thursday and be in place to resume regular flights Friday.
“The hope is that everyone starts Friday in the right place,” Murray said.
While Southwest operated only 1,500 of its 4,000 daily scheduled passenger flights this week, it made 104 “ferry flights” Thursday to move crew members and planes around the system in preparation for Friday, Watterson said.
Southwest plans to offer about 4,000 flights a day over the New Year’s weekend as millions of travelers look to return home, college and work after the holiday break.
Union leaders blamed airline management for allowing the company’s technology to lag behind the demands of running such a complex operation.
Jordan promised customers that the company would make changes to prevent such violations from happening again.
In the memo, Watterson said they plan to put pilots and flight attendants on pre-scheduled flights instead of trying to rebuild assignments from scratch.
“Customers want to fly what they originally bought, so going to this schedule actually requires the least amount of change and is the least disruptive,” Watterson said.