A blast of severe winter weather last week caused thousands of Southwest Airlines flight cancellations, culminating in one complete collapse of its flight system. In the days since, the carrier’s struggle to recover has been slow and, according to some passengers, largely unsuccessful. But experts say Southwest’s mess is actually the culmination of problems that have built up over several years.
Since Dec. 22, the beleaguered airline has canceled more than half of its regular flight schedule, and by the end of Wednesday, about 87% of all canceled flights in the U.S. alone were from the Southwest, according to industry followers FlightRadar24 and FlightAware.
The plight, which has annoyed passengers and dropped on from government regulators, has been magnified this week as other major airlines recovered from the extreme cold, ice and snow that gripped much of the United States over the holiday weekend.
The company has apologized to its passengers and employees for the daily cancellations and cut its capacity by about two-thirds Thursday, according to a CNN review of flight data.
This week’s collapse isn’t the first time the company has found itself in this predicament. In October 2021, Southwest canceled more than 2,000 flights in a four-day period. While the airline blamed part of the crisis on Florida’s bad weather, Southwest canceled flights for much longer than its competitors.
But much of Southwest’s mess could be the result of long-term problems unrelated to the weather.
The most important of these are outdated internal processes and information technology. Southwest’s scheduling system hasn’t changed much since the 1990s, according to Captain Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association.
Southwest also acknowledges the company’s aging infrastructure. “We’ve talked an awful lot about modernizing the operation and the need to do that,” CEO Bob Jordan told employees in a memo obtained by CNN.
Over the years, the airline’s cancellation rate has skyrocketed, tripling from 2013 to September 2022, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, which tracks airline performance, and well before the recent crisis.
The agency has only released data for 2022 through September. In previous years, to ensure a fair comparison, CNN only analyzed carrier data from January to September.
Airline cancellation rates fluctuate from year to year depending on weather and other factors such as Covid-19, resulting in major industry-wide disruption in the early months of the 2020 pandemic.
But Southwest consistently doesn’t perform as well as its competitors when it comes to cancellations, according to agency data.
Over the past decade, the airline had higher cancellation rates in several years compared to other major carriers, the data shows.
It’s not just cancellations. Southwest has also seen its on-time percentage fall to its lowest point in a decade in recent years. Through September 2022, well before the airline’s current problems, only about 7 in 10 flights have arrived on time.