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Families with young children were stranded at the airport over Christmas. Flight attendants and pilots sleep on the floor. Huge piles of luggage – some with presents inside, some with medicines – got stuck at the wrong airport. And frustrated travelers been on hold for hours.
Southwest Airline’s cascading failures have been audited a real bingo card of travel nightmares. And while every airline suffered bad weather and cancellations last week, only Southwest fell apart.
Southwest now says operations are back to normal. But 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It wasn’t just the weather — outdated systems helped create the crisis
A massive winter storm caused the first flight disruptions, but it was the company’s internal software systems which seem to have turned a normal problem into an astonishing disaster.
Many airlines use a “hub and spoke” system, where flights are routed through a few major airports to save costs. Southwest has long prided itself on using a “point-to-point” system instead. It’s a leaner day-to-day system, as well as resources many complex scheduling challenges to get aircraft, pilots and flight crews to the right place at the right time.
Southwest most likely used very outdated computer systems to manage that complicated system.
Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan compared the airline’s debacle to a “gigantic puzzle” that needs to be solved. And he said the company clearly needed to accelerate its “pre-existing plans to upgrade systems.”
The Ministry of Transport says it will launch its own investigation into what exactly went wrong.
The airline’s epic failure took many by surprise
Southwest is not a fly-by-night operation, or a low-cost airline where customers have low expectations and misery is part of the deal. It was a respected – in some cases loved – company.
“They have the best reputation for customer service and management flexibility,” aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia told NPR. “They’re usually pretty good at responding to crises.”
Customers are baffled by how horrible this experience has been.
“I got 50,000 miles with them,” said Hillary Chang, a traveler whose bag was lost in the vortex of the Southwest disaster. Now she says, “I’ve been thinking about it… I’m open to a relationship with another airline.”
Customers aren’t the only ones angry. Employees are also frustrated
The president of the union representing Southwest pilots called the Christmas meltdown “catastrophic”. told NPR he, for one was not surprised by it – and neither are most pilots.
“We still use not only IT from the 1990s, but also processes [from] when our airline was one-tenth the size,” he said. “And it’s really just not scaled for an operation we have today.”
There were multiple scheduling meltdowns over the past two years that, while smaller than the Christmas disaster, indicated that Southwest had a problem. Pilots were ready to work, but Southwest had no planes or routes available to them. The same situation occurred in this disaster, and many pilots and flight crews took to social media to express their frustration with their own company.
Customers can be reimbursed for “reasonable” expenses (…whatever that means)
Southwest is required by law to offer a full refund for a canceled flight. It also has earlier involvedfor any avoidable cancellation or extreme delay, to rebook passengers at no extra cost and to offer vouchers for meals and hotel accommodations.
And Southwest seems willing to cover even more costs for this debacle. But the company has not provided clear guidance on what expenses it will cover, saying only that it will “honor reasonable requests for reimbursement for meals, hotel, and alternative transportation (such as rental cars or tickets from other airlines).”
And, of course, there’s no compensation for missing Christmas with your family, or spending a night on an airport floor with a cranky toddler and no luggage.
Southwest has many excuses and not many answers
Southwest, for its part, is sorry. Real Sorry. The CEO is sorry. The Chief Commercial Officer is sorry. “We can’t apologize enough,” customer service representatives told irate passengers on Twitter. (Apparently they are do their bestalthough.)
Meanwhile, the FAQs are up Southwest’s “Travel Disruption” site don’t seem so much helpful as kafkaesque.
What should you do if you get an error while trying to book online? “We encourage you to keep trying to book,” advises Southwest.
What to do if you can’t find seats on flights? “We encourage you to keep looking,” says Southwest.
And what if you’re on hold for hours and can’t reach an agent? “If you need us urgently, just keep calling.”