Southwest may be back on the road now, but it may only be a matter of time before another airline and its travelers experience similar chaos. According to real-time air traffic tracker FlightAware, the airline canceled more than 15,000 flights between December 22 and 29.
“We’ve seen this happen across the industry over the summer, two summers now, where it’s not a storm from Mother Nature that’s causing the disruption, it’s a storm from the management teams. The storm,” said Dennis Tajer, a longtime American Airlines pilot and spokesman for the pilots’ union, the Allied Pilots Association.
Southwest blamed overstretched technology for its inability to bounce back from extreme winter weather over the holidays, but employees said it wasn’t the only problem and industry experts said Southwest wasn’t alone.
USA TODAY reached out to Southwest for comment on the specific criticisms and was directed to the airline’s statements about its ongoing recovery efforts.
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Why is Southwest Airlines in so much trouble?
“It’s not about any staff,” said Lyn Montgomery, president of TWU Local 556, the Southwest flight attendants union, which represents more than 13,000 flight attendants. “It’s really a failure of senior management to ensure that the IT infrastructure can handle the growth and expansion we’ve had over the years.”
Southwest said it was “fully staffed and prepared” heading into the holiday weekend, but the severe weather domestically moved much of its fleet and crews and stretched its scheduling tools to capacity.
“Our network is incredibly complex, and airline operations rely on all parts, especially the aircraft and crew, that stay in motion to where they plan to go,” Southwest CEO Bob Jordan said in a video apology Tuesday. .
With so many pieces out of place, the airline told USA TODAY that “our instruments struggled to get the flight crews and aircraft in the right places.”
Southwest cut operations to about a third of its daily flights through Thursday to allow time to “catch up.” Meanwhile, the airline said it had to resort to the tedious and time-consuming task of manually scheduling crews.
“It’s like trying to beat someone with a MacBook Pro and your abacus,” Tajer said.
According to independent travel industry analyst Robert Mann, president of RW Mann and former CEO of airlines such as American and TWA, other returning airlines typically use cloud- or Internet-based tools that make them more resilient and flexible during major disruptions. . .
“…it’s clear that we need to double down on our existing plans to improve systems for these extreme situations so that we don’t have to deal with what happened again,” Jordan said.
Raising red flags
Southwest flight attendants and pilots say they’ve had problems for years.
“For more than a decade, a lack of leadership to adapt, innovate and protect our operations has led to repeated system disruptions, countless frustrated passengers and millions in lost profits,” the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association said in a statement. “…this problem began many years ago when the complexity of our network outstripped the ability to withstand meteorological and technological disruptions.”
Mann agreed that Southwest is seeing rapid growth, especially in 2021 when travel picks up again as it ramps up services. The airline is the country’s largest carrier in terms of daily flights and domestic passengers.
“When they have a problem, they have a bigger problem.
Montgomery noted that while Southwest has expanded international flights and has staff who speak the destination’s languages, “the technology has yet to keep up with that growth.”
“This (melt) is not new, but it’s certainly the most catastrophic we’ve seen,” he said, adding that “micromelts” occur in between.
Back in 2016, he said flight attendants were waiting for policy changes. That year, a brownie, called Technado internally, left crews stranded for days after a faulty router caused a 12-hour system outage.
In 2018, TWU Local 556 told executive management that “the flight attendants were very, very tired and we were struggling to get the basics like food or getting into our hotel rooms on time,” according to Montgomery. “Those are the things that really make our job difficult,” he said.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us, including investing in new solutions to manage large-scale disruptions,” the airline said Thursday.
Unfortunately, according to Mann, these changes won’t happen overnight. “This will probably take a year or two to resolve systemically,” he said.
Investment in human capital
Randy Barnes, president of TWU Local 555, which represents Southwest land workers, said the company also needs to invest in its employees.
“Ground workers need more support. Many of our people have been forced to work 16- or 18-hour days this holiday season,” said a union leader, noting that some workers went on strike last week. “Although it can be difficult, especially during the holiday season, we need to consider better flight distances during extreme weather events in the bitter cold of winter as well as the extreme heat of summer.”
“If airline managers had planned better, the meltdown we’ve witnessed in recent days could have been reduced or avoided,” Barnes said.
While this was happening, Montgomery said flight attendants were being put up in hotels without any heat or water, and there were transportation problems for workers in areas with heavy snow.
Others who identified themselves as Southwest employees shared on social media countless disappointmentsincluding paying for hotel rooms out of pocket and sleeping on airport floors when you can’t get on the airline.
“It’s not just IT. It’s human capital,” Tajer said.
The airline apologized repeatedly for the travel cancellation last week and thanked staff for “showing up in every way”.
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A whole industry problem
Southwest isn’t the only airline facing such problems.
“For other airlines like Southwest and American Airlines, the glory days were in the ’80s and ’90s, and you still have that IT system,” Tajer said.
Meanwhile, Mann says customer demand is increasing.
“The whole industry is trying to satisfy the amount of customer demand.” Mann said. “It really stretched a very thin workforce in the industry.”
He pointed to the summer of 2021, when airlines like Spirit canceled hundreds of flights due to stormy weather and operational problems, leaving passengers stranded at airports.
Of course, the crews are also stranded.
“We’re going through the same thing and want the same result: We want to get you where you need to go so we can get to our families,” Tajer said.
Southwest pilots are requesting communications equipment to help displaced crews stay in constant contact with the airline.
“I flew on a trip that was disrupted by weather and when I got the call I was like, ‘Well, where are you?’ they say. I just landed one of your planes,” said the American Airlines pilot. “It’s discouraging and exciting.”
He and Mann hope other airlines will follow Southwest’s struggles.
“Because we’ve recovered well during this storm, we’re not doing a celebratory lap around the track,” Tajer said. “We know our time in the headlines is just an event until we get the actual groundwork done.”
“You try to use these things as learning experiences,” Mann said.
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