Why The Southwest Airlines Carnage Happened, And What The Airline Will Pay For

Southwest Airlines has faced an operational disaster of unprecedented proportions, cancelling over 60% of its flights every day and continuing to do so. They are likely displacing a quarter million passengers per day and doing so for about a week.

People missed their holidays with loved ones. They’ve faced enormous stress. Certainly some of these holiday gatherings would have been the very last one families would have had all together. Some reunions were last shots at saving a marriage, or would have been opportunities to rekindle a connection – so there are marriages, and families, that don’t happen because Southwest kept people apart.

Airlines like to talk about the important role they play in connecting people, but when they don’t operate and don’t offer a way for passengers to get where they’re going, those connections don’t happen. It’s one thing to talk about costs and expenses. There’s a real human cost, too.

Still, it’s easier to visualize the carnage in long lines, 15 hour phone hold times, and mounting piles of baggage.

A glimpse of the @SouthwestAir bag backlog @PHXSkyHarbor this morning. Passengers wandering around in hopes they spot their bag. Just met a guy who DROVE from Denver to pick up his bags and salvage vacation. pic.twitter.com/zuugyO63YG

— Dawn Gilbertson (@DawnGilbertson) December 27, 2022

Southwest Promises To Help Cover Your Costs

Southwest is now saying they’ll honor reasonable requests for reimbursement of expenses that passengers have incurred due to the airline’s troubles including “meals, hotel, and alternate transportation.” Of course it is not clear in advance what Southwest will consider reasonable?

  • Purchasing the only seat available on United, at full fare?
  • Five nights of hotel waiting for a re-scheduled Southwest flight? Plus full meals for 3 days, perhaps at GSA per diem rates?
  • Additional days of pet-sitting expense, until you can get home?
  • Replacement items, such as clothing and toiletries, from missing luggage

When adding up actual expenses customers are incurring, through several days of delay, we could be talking about more than a billion dollars in reimbursement expense alone, leaving aside all of the other costs to the airline from this disruption. Of course you have to expect that most people won’t claim expenses, or full expenses, or keep receipts, or go through the gauntlet to appeal any initial disapprovals of expenses. DOT will have lots of consumer complaints to sort through for sure.

Southwest’s CEO Finally Speaks

After days of cancellations, Southwest’s CEO finally appears. He apologizes to employees (necessary) but doesn’t really show empathy for customers. He blames weather. Joe Brancatelli compared it to a hostage video.

On the heels of wide-scale disruptions, we're working diligently to Safely recover our operation & accommodate displaced Customers & Crews. We know this is unacceptable & sincerely apologize. If your travel was impacted, explore self-service options here: https://t.co/B6L8HR9Yqc pic.twitter.com/mLWndYMned

— Southwest Airlines (@SouthwestAir) December 28, 2022

So What Happened Here?

Southwest didn’t have enough employees when their operation began to unravel due to weather. They didn’t have enough reserve crews. They didn’t have enough ground staff, as people were calling out sick not just in elevated holiday and winter numbers but because of all of the different viruses circulating. And systems just broke down, too, even the airline’s phone system.

Word of Southwest’s meltdown began with weather in Denver where they had no one to work the ramp and were threatening termination for sick calls without a doctor’s note (and disallowing telemedicine visits). The harsh tone of the letter seemed like it might have been a rogue vice president – but there was a similar note to rampers in Baltimore (minus the diss of telemedicine).

I had no idea there was a BWI version of this as well: pic.twitter.com/twMTQHDfhT

— 🇺🇦 JonNYC 🇺🇦 (@xJonNYC) December 28, 2022

They didn’t have the technology in place to recover – to properly track and re-assign crews, to get in touch with crew, to figure out the very state of their operation. They’ve been investing in improving IT for years, moving beyond the provincial carrier they were in their roots, but it’s been a long and slow process at the airline.

I think we finally have some explanation for why Southwest continues to cancel so many of its flights throughout the week, via aviation watchdog JonNYC. They’re assigning crew to planes manually.

Southwest Update: pic.twitter.com/hBnhudzcHS

— 🇺🇦 JonNYC 🇺🇦 (@xJonNYC) December 28, 2022

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