For most of last week, Simple Flying covered how flying during this past Christmas season proved chaotic as airlines flew on the edge of their limits amidst historic winter troubles. As the holiday season drifted, the chaos seemed to have primarily calmed down as airlines adjusted themselves to the demand and weather. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Southwest Airlines.
Not such a Merry Christmas after all
Over the past few days, the low-cost carrier has struggled to keep its fleet flying and transporting passengers to their anticipated destinations. Trouble for Southwest Airlines began to fully occur on Boxing Day, when the budget carrier canceled nearly 3,000 flights, which was approximately 70% of its total flights nationwide, and accounted for more than 50% of all canceled flights worldwide for that day alone.
And the day’s flight cancelations were just the tip of the iceberg, along with flight delays, misplaced baggage strewed around the airports, and the inability to rebook most of its stranded passengers. The earlier time passengers can expect to be rebooked is December 31st, but passengers are still skeptical about whether or not they will get their awaited flight out.
However, the issues carried onto Tuesday and Wednesday are forecasted to only calm down next week at the earliest. With more than 3,900 flights canceled in total and as the number of frustrated, stranded passengers continue to rise, how did Southwest Airlines find itself still caught flying in a storm when other US airlines have relatively flown through?
A meltdown waiting to happen
While it’s true that the holiday troubles relatively began when Winter Storm Elliott battered most of the US last week, the harsh storm seemed to have unlocked quite several issues within Southwest Airlines that are currently causing the meltdown seen these past few days.
Just like most of the airlines within the industry, Southwest Airlines is still facing an issue of staff shortages, despite having hired over 10,000 workers since January and being back to pre-pandemic staffing levels. However, the budget carrier’s relationship with its employees hasn’t always been exceptionally positive, but more of being on relatively thin ice.
Thin ice cracked slightly before Christmas Day when the airline declared a state of operational emergency at Denver International Airport on December 21st. Allegedly, the airline was receiving what it deemed as an unusually high number of absences due to Denver ramp agents calling in sick or for reported personal absences. Also within the declared emergency was Southwest Airlines threatening to terminate ramp agents who would continue calling in sick.
And if they are going to call in sick, a doctor’s letter and medical certificate had to be provided immediately as proof, or risk termination. Applications for reported personal absences submitted within 12 hours would also be rejected. The threat of termination angered Denver ramp agents, and approximately 120 eventually walked off the job. As a result, Southwest Airlines’ operations at Denver International Airport became highly overwhelmed without enough ramp employees.
And besides a shortage of ramp agents, the low-cost carrier wasn’t having sufficient flight and cabin crew to operate its flight schedules. The mounting flight cancelations and delays resulted in several crew members reaching their operating limits. But surely, Southwest Airlines would have scheduling software to solve such issues?
The budget carrier does, except the outdated software is contributing to the problem instead of helping. Instead of adequately reassigning the crews to other flights during the chaos, several employees struggled to even get through crew scheduling services. This left many crew members unable to get reassignments or adjust their schedules accordingly, affecting their operating limit and rest requirements.
Without being able to change their flights or get hotel rooms, many pilots and flight attendants were forced to sleep in the airports alongside the stranded passengers. Perhaps what’s even more unfortunate is that airline employees and unions have been trying to get the airline to upgrade the software for years but to no avail.
Casey Murray, President of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, expressed his disappointment in the lack of effort from the airline to upgrade its software by commenting:
“SWAPA has provided unlimited data over the past several years to provide solutions, so I want to frame this differently. We all know that Southwest Airlines has buried its head in the sand regarding its operational processes and IT. And even though irrefutable analytics and data have been provided by us again and again, pride in their outdated processes and technology continues to drive the management.”
An apology and a timeline from Southwest Airlines
Considering the extensive damage this meltdown has caused practically everyone, Southwest Airlines was quick to issue an apology to affected passengers and employees. The airline highlighted that despite being fully staffed and prepared for the holiday weekend, the onset of Winter Storm Elliott forced it to carry out daily changes to its flight schedules.
Unfortunately, the timeline given by the low-cost carrier confirms that it’ll be a week of further cancelation and delays as it tries to recover from this sudden operational setback. In its issued apology statement, Southwest Airlines said:
“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. As we continue the work to recover our operation, we have decided to continue operating a reduced schedule by flying roughly one-third of our schedule for the next several days. We recognize falling short and sincerely apologize.”
However, passengers were still dissatisfied with the budget carrier’s response, let alone the long timeline before things were expected to return to normalcy. From the passengers’ perspective, the inability to operate scheduled flights isn’t as bad as the airline’s initial blame on poor weather conditions. Since the airline’s initial excuse was the weather, many passengers could not claim their rightful compensation, much less a rebooked flight.
And passengers’ weren’t the only ones dissatisfied with Southwest Airlines’ handling of this meltdown so far, as the US Department of Transportation has officially opened an investigation into the low-cost carrier. The agency will investigate how the breakdown happened, if the cancelations were avoidable and if the airline has been complying with what it owes to the affected passengers.
With initial flight schedules being delayed and eventually canceled, Southwest Airlines might end this year and perhaps start the next on quite an unpleasant note. Hopefully, the budget carrier will solve its troubles quickly and have its stranded crew and passengers flying and transported to wherever they should be. And hopefully, this giant meltdown will be the wake-up it needs to solve some internal issues as well.
- IATA/ICAO Code:
- Airline Type:
- Low-Cost Carrier
- Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, Dallas Love Field, Denver International Airport, Harry Reid International Airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Houston Hobby Airport, Los Angeles International Airport, Midway International Airport, Oakland International Airport, Orlando International Airport, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport
- Year Founded:
- Robert Jordan
- United States