Southwest airlines hopes to end a week-long debacle and bring back nearly 4,000 flights by Friday, while wondering how to avoid a repeat of one of the worst operational disasters in its history.
After more than 15,700 flights canceled over an eight-day period since December 22, the Dallas-based airline said Thursday it finally has pilots, flight attendants and planes ready to return to a normal schedule on Friday. To make that happen, the company said it had to shut down two-thirds of its flights between Tuesday and Thursday to end a cascade of cancellations that escalated by the day and left millions of passengers stranded over the Christmas break.
Leaders blamed the problems on bad weather and an “overmatched” crew reshuffling technology system that couldn’t keep up with the task of reassigning thousands of pilots and flight attendants after winter weather hit major bases in Denver and Chicago.
But during a media call on Thursday, CEO Bob Jordan, chief operating officer Andrew Watterson and other senior executives at Southwest were short on answers about whether another meltdown could happen.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my 35 years in terms of the impact on the network, the transaction level, the complexity of the solutions, all those things — none of these are excuses,” Jordan said on the call. “But there will be priorities to respond to this because this is not something we want to happen again for our customers or for our employees.”
Leaders in the Southwest aren’t exactly sure how many passengers need to be accommodated in the coming days because the outage was so extensive that many opted for other modes of transport, bought expensive last-minute flights from other airlines or missed their holiday vacation altogether because the outage lasted more than a week and spanned the Christmas weekend.
About 2.3 million passengers were inconvenienced during the meltdown.
“We don’t know how many people still have to travel,” Watterson said. “It depends on who still wants to travel, so to speak. And so easily the first five days of the year, I can see there’s room for people if they need to travel.
As late as Wednesday, Southwest even informed employees, many still stranded in hotel rooms far from home, that it would attempt to reset its flight schedule on Friday. Southwest told customers Thursday morning and communicated it to the public later that day. Southwest also put tickets back on sale for Friday and the weekend after halting sales earlier in the week to avoid canceling those bookings and to give space to pilots and flight attendants.
Southwest has spent the past two days developing a plan to get pilots and flight attendants back into position to resume travel they originally planned before the meltdown. By cutting about 2,500 flights a day, the airline had the resources to track down flight attendants and pilots across the country and develop a strategy to end the succession of problems.
Because the automated systems to reassign pilots and flight attendants were useless, Southwest trained a group of about 1,000 employees to manually re-schedule crew members, calling them individually, Watterson said.
After going through this series of weather and operational disruptions, Watterson said the company can re-apply that process in the event of another outage.
Otherwise, it will take the airline years to completely redeploy new crew scheduling technology systems.
“It’s just a big and complicated project,” Jordan said. “That’s not meant as an excuse; it’s just a fact.”
“I think a discussion from this will be what we can do, certainly in critical areas of the plan to accelerate that and accelerate that development.”
The company has been working to upgrade and replace older technology, but it takes time, he said.
“We have a very large infrastructure spending plan every year — capital spending plan and technology and other areas, but a lot in technology,” he said. “And the systems are complicated. In some cases we have outdated systems. And it’s just a period of time it takes to grind through those replacements. So those are multi-year projects.”
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg sent a letter to Jordan on Thursday demanding the company take care of customers financially burdened by the travel disruptions.
“These front-line workers are not responsible for leadership-level errors,” Buttigieg wrote in the letter. “I hope and expect that you will follow the law, take the steps outlined in this letter, and notify me promptly of Southwest’s efforts to redress the customers it has wronged.”
And after meeting with representatives from three of the company’s unions Wednesday, Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas and Jake Ellzey, R-Arlington, issued a joint statement Thursday saying, among other things:
“There has always been strong bipartisan support in Congress for the growth of Southwest Airlines…
“However, it is clear that Southwest has been taking unacceptable risks for some time and trying to get by with an unacceptably thin margin of error – both in terms of personnel and technology – and that this crisis was both predictable and preventable.
“The payment of hundreds of millions in dividends to shareholders and healthy earnings in the first three quarters of this year clearly show that Southwest can afford to address its current issues, but has chosen not to.” They challenged Southwest executives to compensate passengers fairly and take steps to prevent future meltdowns.
As customer cancellations piled up store luggage at airports across the countrySouthwest Airlines attempted to communicate to customers that it intended to “honor reasonable requests” for reimbursement of hotels, food, transportation, and even tickets from other airlines.
“We have informed customers that if we cancel their flights, they will be eligible for a full refund,” said chief commercial officer Ryan Green. “If they have to make alternative travel arrangements, we will reimburse customers for those travel expenses. We will ship a customer’s bag to them at no cost to them. And the last few days we have created websites to make things as easy as possible for our customers.”
The company would evaluate compensation for other extenuating circumstances of the flight disruptions, he said.
However, Green acknowledged there are complications, such as determining which requests are reasonable for a refund and figuring out how long it takes to process all claims.
“Realistically, it’s going to take us several weeks here to get back to customers,” he said. “We work as diligently as we can and automate as much as possible to process those quickly. But our goal is to work through that as quickly as possible.”
Southwest has canceled just 39 flights for Friday as of noon on Thursday. according to Flightaware.com. It canceled more than 2,000 flights every day this week dating back to Monday.
Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said the airline on Wednesday attempted to get crew members back to their home bases so they could be dispersed and in place on Thursday to begin regular flying on Friday.
“The hope is to start fresh on Friday with everyone in the right place,” Murray said.
While Southwest operated only about 1,500 of its 4,000 daily passenger flights this week, it also conducted 104 “ferry flights” Thursday to move crew members and aircraft through the system to get ready for Friday, Watterson said.
Southwest plans to offer nearly 4,000 flights a day over New Year’s weekend as millions of travelers look to return home, to college, and back to work after the holidays.
Union leaders have blamed the airline’s leadership for the company’s technology falling woefully short of running such a complex operation.
In the memo, Watterson said they plan to put pilots and flight attendants on flights they were originally scheduled for, rather than trying to build assignments from scratch.
“Customers want to fly what they originally bought, so going to that schedule actually requires the least changes and is the least disruptive,” said Watterson.