A Top Airline Executive Explains The Southwest Airlines Meltdown

Southwest’s IT systems lag other airlines. Their phone systems can’t handle the load. And recovery from a situation where crew are out of place, where the airline doesn’t always even know where crew are, and where flight schedules and staffing have to be rebuilt manually is not only nearly impossible – it’s made harder by operational know-how with a hole in it coming out of the pandemic.

A Reddit post explains the Southwest Airlines meltdown (it cancelled >2.5k flights today).

TLDR: Crew scheduling system is 20 years outdated. In event of disruption, can only be changed via phone and manually updated (no app/internet options). And generally understaffed. pic.twitter.com/dOTRDdnqMa

— Trung Phan (@TrungTPhan) December 28, 2022

Add on that a lot of people were paid to retire early in 2020. Southwest hired about 16,000 people in 2022. Nearly 20% of their workforce is brand new this year. A lot of that is flight attendants, and other front line employees. But it’s ops people too.

Former JetBlue Senior Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer (and current LATAM Chief Commercial Officer) Marty St. George offered his take on Twitter, focusing on the IT issues and challenges rebuilding something at this scale for an airline.

And again, why the best solution is to Shut👏It👏Down👏 when you’re at risk of losing the plot. Canceling 200 legs before a storm and 100 more on the way out sucks, but beats canceling 600-800 during the recovery (and scale those numbers up for WN, biggest airline in the USA) 3/

— Marty St. George ✈️ (@martysg) December 28, 2022

Now look at WN: a nodal (versus pure hub and spoke) airline with, my guess is 12-14 crew bases, and 4000 dept a day vs 1000 at JetBlue. I bet the crew pairing optimizer takes 10-12 hours 5/

— Marty St. George ✈️ (@martysg) December 28, 2022

Add into that, the phone systems are not sized to handle either all crews or all customers calling at once. Plus I bet a lot of the best reservations agents/crew schedulers left during covid and were replaced by junior, less experienced folks 7/

— Marty St. George ✈️ (@martysg) December 28, 2022

PLUS that WN is basically a fair weather airline, with the Texas and California being half of the airline (but with DEN MDW as the bad weather challenges)

Usually snow events move across the system. SLC, then DEN the next day, MDW the next day, then the northeast. Spaced out 9/

— Marty St. George ✈️ (@martysg) December 28, 2022

To paraphrase the great F Scott Fitzgerald, an operation falls apart gradually and then all at once. When it gets away from you, you are just riding a careening toboggan not driving it 12/

— Marty St. George ✈️ (@martysg) December 28, 2022

St. George attributes more of this to weather than I think is fair. And he thinks this is getting more play because you don’t expect it from Southwest the way maybe the Spirit Airlines meltdown last summer did less to harm their brand. But he gets at a piece of this – which is that the airline lacked the tools to effectively rebuild once they lost control of the operation.

They didn’t know where crew were and had to rebuild everything manually and you can’t just do that on the fly.

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