Southwest Airlines is hoping to end a weeklong debacle and bring back almost 4,000 flights Friday as it reckons with how to prevent a repeat of one of the worst operational disasters in its history.
After canceling more than 15,700 flights over an eight-day stretch since Dec. 22, the Dallas-based air carrier said Thursday that it finally has pilots, flight attendants and aircraft in place to return to a normal schedule Friday. To make that possible, the company said it had to shut down two-thirds of its flights between Tuesday and Thursday to stem a cascade of cancellations that was escalating by the day and left millions of passengers stranded during the Christmas holiday.
Leaders blamed the issues on bad weather and an “overmatched” crew rescheduling 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 Thursday, CEO Bob Jordan, chief operating officer Andrew Watterson and other senior managers at Southwest were short on answers about whether or not another meltdown could happen again.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my 35 years in terms of the impact on the network, the level of transactions, the complexity of the solves, all of those things — none of those being excuses,” Jordan said during the call . “But there will be priorities that come out of responding to this because this is not something we want to happen again for our customers or for our employees.”
Southwest leaders are unsure exactly how many passengers will need to be accommodated in the coming days because the level of disruption was so deep that many thing other forms of transportation, bought expensive last-minute flights on other airlines or missed their holiday vacations altogether as the breakdown lasted more than a week and spanned the Christmas weekend.
About 2.3 million passengers were disrupted during the meltdown.
“We don’t know how many people still need 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 be room for people should they need to travel.”
It wasn’t until late Wednesday that Southwest even communicated to employees, many still stranded in hotel rooms far from home, that it would attempt to reset the flight schedule fresh on Friday. Southwest told customers Thursday morning and then 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 prevent those bookings from being canceled as well as giving space to move pilot and flight attendants.
Southwest spent the last two days developing a plan to get pilots and flight attendants back into position to resume trips they had originally scheduled before the meltdown. Cutting around 2,500 flights a day gave the carrier the resources to track down flight attendants and pilots scattered across the country and develop a strategy to end the cascading problems.
With the automated systems to reassign pilots and flight attendants useless, Southwest trained a group of about 1,000 employees to help reschedule crew members manually, calling them individually, Watterson said.
Having gone through this series of weather and operational disruptions, Watterson said the company can reapply that process again in the event of another breakdown.
Otherwise, it will take the airline years to fully reimplement new crew scheduling technology systems.
“It’s just a large and complicated project,” Jordan said. “That’s not meant to be an excuse; it’s just a fact.”
“I think a discussion out of this will be what can we 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. We have legacy systems in some cases. And it’s just a period of time it takes to grind through those replacements. So those are multi-year projects.”
The delays and cancellations have already prompted an examination from the Department of Transportation and scrutiny from politicians in Washington, DC
Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg sent a letter to Jordan Thursday demanding the company take care of customers financially burdened by the travel disruptions.
“These front-line employees are not to blame for mistakes at the leadership level,” Buttigieg wrote in the letter. “I hope and expect that you will follow the law, take the steps laid out in this letter, and provide me with a prompt update on Southwest’s efforts to do right by 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 that said, in part:
“There has always been strong bipartisan support in Congress for the growth of Southwest Airlines …
“However, it is clear that for some time Southwest has run unacceptable risks and tried to get by with an unacceptably thin margin of error — both in staffing and in technology — and that this crisis was both predictable and preventable.
“The payment of hundreds of millions in dividends to shareholders and a healthy profit through the first three quarters of this year clearly show that Southwest can afford to address the issues at hand 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 along with mountains of luggage in airports across the country, Southwest Airlines tried to communicate with customers that it planned to “honor reasonable requests” for reimbursement of hotels, food, transportation and even tickets on other airlines.
“We’ve notified customers that if we canceled their flights, they are eligible for a full refund,” said chief commercial officer Ryan Green. “If they had to make alternative travel arrangements, we’re going to reimburse customers for those travel expenses. We will ship a customer’s bag to them and no cost to them. And over the last couple of days, we’ve stood up websites in order to make that as easy on our customers as possible.”
The company would evaluate reimbursing costs of other extenuating circumstances from the flight disruptions, he said.
However, Green acknowledged that there are complications, such as determining what requests are reasonable for reimbursement and figuring out how long it will take to process all the claims.
“Realistically it’s going to take us several weeks here to get back to customers,” he said. “We are working as diligently as we can and automating as much of that as we can to process through those quickly. But it’s our goal to work through that as quickly as possible.”
Southwest has canceled just 39 flights for Friday as of noon Thursday, according to Flightaware.com. It canceled more than 2,000 flights every day this week stretching back to Monday.
Southwest Airlines Pilots Association president Casey Murray said the carrier spent Wednesday trying to get crew members back to their home base airports so they could be dispersed out Thursday and be in place to start regular flying on Friday.
“The hope is to start fresh Friday with everyone in the right place,” Murray said.
While Southwest was only operating about 1,500 of its 4,000 daily scheduled passenger flights this week, it also conducted 104 “ferry flights” on Thursday just to move crew members and airplanes around the system to be ready for Friday, Watterson said.
Southwest plans to offer nearly 4,000 flights a day over the New Year’s weekend as millions of travelers look to return back home, to college and back to work after the holiday break.
Union leaders have blamed airline leadership for letting company technology fall woefully behind the demands of running such a complex operation.
Jordan pledged to customers that the company will make changes to ensure this kind of disruption doesn’t happen again.
In the memo, Watterson said they plan to put pilots and flight attendants on flights that they had originally been scheduled for instead of trying to rebuild assignments from scratch.
“Customers want to fly what they originally bought, so going to that schedule is actually requires the least changes and is the least disruptive,” Watterson said.