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Southwest Airlines Faces Largest Operational Meltdown of the Decade

Brutal winter weather and staffing problems force the airline to slash its schedule as it recovers from Christmas weekend chaos

by Dan Booth

December 28, 2022

Photo: Courtesy of Sven Piper

With most of the United States still digging out from a deadly winter storm that ravaged the country over the Christmas weekend, Southwest Airlines has been forced to cancel nearly 10,000 flights nationwide in the past three days, almost two-thirds of its total schedule.

And the problems are expected to persist for the rest of this week, leaving frustrated passengers stranded with no options to rebook travel and unclaimed luggage stacking up at airports across the country. 

In a Monday interview with The Wall Street Journal, Southwest CEO Bob Jordan said, “We had a tough day today. In all likelihood, we’ll have another tough day tomorrow as we work our way out of this.” 

According to FlightAware, the airline canceled over 2,500 of its flights Tuesday and already cut nearly the same number Wednesday. Altogether, Southwest cancellations account for more than half the total number of flights canceled worldwide over the busy Christmas travel holiday. Furthermore, the airline warns the situation is unlikely to improve until early next week.

The airline issued a statement Tuesday calling the disruptions “unacceptable” and announcing a decision to “continue operating a reduced schedule by flying roughly one-third of our schedule for the next several days.” It also requests passengers not scheduled to fly within the next 72 hours to delay calling busy customer service lines.

Why Southwest?

While most of the US aviation system struggled with the unusually bitter cold and blizzard conditions, other major US carriers have rebounded with relatively fewer cancelations. As of Tuesday, FlightAware reports Delta and United had each canceled 8 percent of their schedules, while American Airlines cut less than 1 percent of its flights.

By contrast, Southwest’s problems seem to stem from a combination of staffing shortages and outdated scheduling systems. Although the airline has hired over 10,000 workers since January to get back to pre-pandemic levels, there are lingering issues of personnel shortages.

The cascade began the week before Christmas when increasing delays and cancellations left flight crews and cabin attendants out of position, and ground personnel launched work actions that underscored the thinned ranks of Southwest employees.

Because of the airline’s problems with crew scheduling services, flight and cabin crews found themselves unable to reschedule. Many crew members ran against operating limits and rest requirements, stranding them in airports alongside their passengers.

Southwest Airlines Pilots Association president Casey Murray told the Dallas Morning News that the airline has hundreds of pilots across the country hoping to get on flights but unable to get through to Southwest’s scheduling team.

The issue, Murray says, comes because the airline “has buried its head in the sand” regarding its operational processes and technology. Casey urged the carrier to upgrade its software solutions to address the problems.

As the weather begins to release its grip on the country, the carrier continues to work to “reset” its operations. “We’re working with safety at the forefront to urgently address wide-scale disruption by rebalancing the airline and repositioning crews and our fleet ultimately to best serve all who plan to travel with us,” read a statement from Southwest. 

“Our heartfelt apologies for this are just beginning,” the statement continued.

However, it may take more than heartfelt apologies from the carrier, as stockholders and the Department of Transportation are looking at the weekend’s meltdown and expecting answers.

Southwest stock plunged nearly 6 percent in Tuesday trading. Meanwhile, in a Monday tweet, the Transportation Department announced it plans to investigate the airline’s handling of the situation.

“USDOT is concerned by Southwest’s unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays & reports of lack of prompt customer service,” the agency tweeted. “The Department will examine whether cancellations were controllable and if Southwest is complying with its customer service plan.”

The airline’s CEO, Bob Jordan, issued a public statement lamenting the airline’s operational meltdown. “We always take care of our customers. And we will lean in and go above and beyond as they would expect us to…taking care of customers who are dealing with costly detours and reroutes,” he said. 

In the meantime, as the airline continues to struggle, some unstable weather might approach the airline’s hub in Denver next week before the year’s end, increasing the difficulty for the airline to attempt to resume normal operations for the New Year’s holiday.