What the Hell Is Going on Over at Southwest Airlines?

A breakdown of an airline-industry breakdown

Southwest cancellations

As you may already be aware, Southwest has, at the time of writing, already canceled more than 2,500 flights on Tuesday, bringing the total number of cancellations since Monday to well north of 5,400. Further, according to Flight Aware, 62% of Wednesday’s schedule has already been axed and View From the Wing‘s Gary Leff says they may not operate more than a third of their flights through end of the year. But there’s still a lot to unpack here, so in the event this is news to you, here’s what you need to know.

To start, what caused the meltdown in the first place?

Per CNN, it was a perfect storm of variables — literally and figuratively. That’s because two of Southwest’s biggest hubs are in Chicago and Denver, coincidentally two of the U.S. cities most effected by this past weekend’s winter storm, while the combination of Covid, the flu and RSV swirling around country left others facing a secondary storm, despite kicking off the weekend fully staffed. An overly ambitious flight schedule with tight turnaround times ultimately made it impossibly to bounce back, and resulted in tens of thousands of stranded passengers.

So many passengers, in fact, it’s actually prompted an examination by the U.S. Transportation Department (USDOT), according to a new report from Skift.

“USDOT is concerned by Southwest Airlines’ disproportionate and unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays as well as the failure to properly support customers experiencing a cancellation or delay,” the department said, adding that it would “closely examine whether cancellations were controllable and whether Southwest is complying with its customer service plan as well as all other pertinent DOT rules.”

But this is all hardly a surprise — not from Southwest. Back in October, Reuters reported that 128,934 flights had been scrapped from January to July — up about 11% from pre-pandemic levels. And guess who was leading the pack with 32,779 cancellations — 3,600 more than the second-worst airline — and 16.8 million-plus delayed minutes? You guessed it. According to ZD Net Business at that time, Southwest pilots had been alleging that “the company’s technology is simply not up to the task of efficiently scheduling staffing. To such a degree that pilots often have their flights changed and find themselves out of position, sometimes not being able to immediately return home.”

Fast forward to Tuesday, travel blog Paddle Your Own Kanoo reported that Southwest is blaming its “antiquated computer systems” and “‘tedious’ manual processes” for its inability to recover from Monday’s meltdown.

“We had people that were legal. We had aircraft that were available, but the process of matching up those crew members with the aircraft could not be handled by our technology,” chief operating officer Andrew Watterson said on an internal call, the leaked transcripts of which were obtained by aviation watchdog JonNYC.

“In our desired state, we have a solver (an IT program) that would be able to do that very quickly and very accurately. Our system today cannot do that,” he added. Talk about writing on the wall.

So, in summation, Southwest has canceled an exorbitant number of flights over the past two days and more are inevitable, ostensibly because they don’t have the technology required to right the ship. So if you still have plans to fly with the Dallas-based carrier over the course of the next week or so, Ts and Ps, because the situation doesn’t look like it’s going to improve any time soon.


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