Southwest Airlines collapse could signal upcoming travel drama

Thousands of canceled flights. Countless divided bags. Millions of angry passengers.

Southwest Airlines’ dear holiday showed how quickly air travel can spiral out of control, especially when bad weather is added to the complex calculation of how to get crews on the right planes at the right time.

The Dallas-based airline promised to get better. Southwest’s CEO said the company is investing more than $1 billion to modernize its IT system, and on Thursday, during the first quarterly investor call since the debacle, company executives spent a lot of time promising year-end failures would not happen again. Overall, the company canceled more than 16,700 flights, a significant increase from other airlines that have recovered from storms in several states faster than Southwest.

“We have disrupted thousands and thousands of customers at a critical time,” Southwest CEO Bob Jordan said during a phone call. “I can’t apologize enough for this. I acknowledge this and we will do our best to make sure we don’t have an event like this again.”

But as climate change continues once extreme weather events have become routineand airlines are putting more passengers on planes to improve efficiency and lower prices, one glitch can throw the entire air travel system into chaos.

“It’s a product that anyone can fly, and most people do,” said Ernest Arwai, president and co-founder of AirInsight, an aviation news and consulting website. “But if something goes wrong, there won’t be enough reserves left in the system to accommodate everyone quickly.”

Southwest is paying dearly for the December disaster.

The company said on Thursday that $800 million financial hit The episode resulted in a net loss of $220 million over the last three months of 2022, according to Jordan. The company expects that the situation will change by March.

“There are things we need to work on as we continue to expand this operation,” Jordan said during the call.

Despite the fact that many denigrate him as a major factor in the carrier slow recovery after flight cancellations due to weatherSouthwest’s unique point-to-point system allows the airline to stand out in a competitive market.

Flying from one destination to another, rather than through the traditional hub network used by many major airlines, allows Southwest to offer non-stop flights to many locations throughout the United States that other major airlines do not have direct flights to. ,” said Lori Garrow, a professor and aviation expert at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The lack of hubs also means that Southwest can spread its labor costs instead of needing a large number of employees during peak hours in places where many planes arrive at the same time. If demand is less than expected at some point, it is easier to move planes than to move the entire hub.

However, the star network is more resilient as there are more pilots and crew members in the same location. If something happens to one flight, crew members and aircraft are nearby to help you recover faster.

In Southwest’s case, the complexity of its direct communications system has collided with an outdated crew scheduling system, leaving the carrier fighting longer than other airlines to return to normal operations, Southwest pilots’ union and aviation experts said.

Southwest Airlines Pilots Association. said the processes the airline uses to connect crews with aircraft have deteriorated over the years, leaving pilots stranded in hotel rooms or being taken by other passenger flights to their destination even at the best of times.

“We are a very complex network,” said Captain Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Pilots Union. “It is much more difficult not only to cope, but also to recover.”

While the airline’s point-to-point network is “the magic that has enabled Southwest to succeed” and grow, Murray said the company has not invested in infrastructure or processes to make it more resilient to major disruptions.

Southwest officials said Thursday that a fix for crew planning software is currently being tested and that improved crew communication is being discussed in ongoing negotiations with the union.

The Times analysis of the performance of Southwest and American Airlines, the country’s largest carrier, in late December found that prior to the December 12, 2011, 18 storms, Southwest had a lower cancellation rate (0.05%) than American (1. eighteen%).

By Dec. On January 23rd, as ferocious and deadly winter storms hit much of the country, the cancellation rate in Southwest reached 34.63% and in America 30.91%. It was the highest cancellation rate for American and the airline has largely recovered since then.

But Southwest cancellations continued to rise to 76.22% in December. 26, long after the major inclement weather had passed. Southwest continued to cancel over 50% of its flights until the figure dropped to 1% in December. thirty

During the crisis, Southwest was also forced to make over 700 non-passenger flights to relocate crew and aircraft, adding to the episode’s financial hit.

“We can’t continue to be unreliable and not give our customers a sense of that reliability,” Murray said. “The future of Southwest Airlines is at stake.”

And that future may not just be with Southwest.

Shortly after the December debacle, the US Department of Transportation announced that it was investigating the incident. In a statement to The Times on Wednesday, a department spokesman said the agency was in “the initial phase of thorough and comprehensive investigation, and that the department had made it clear to the airline that it would face consequences if it did not do so. timely returns and refunds clients.

The Department of Transportation is also looking into whether Southwest executives can “engaged in unrealistic flight planning” — which means the carrier has scheduled more flights than it could handle under the circumstances — which is considered unfair and misleading practice under federal law, the spokesman said.

On Thursday, Southwest officials said they would cooperate fully with the investigation and that recent indicators on the airline’s timeliness and reliability show that the airline’s schedule is viable.

Southwest’s announced efforts to fix its problems with new software and systems is a good move, but it can’t happen overnight, AirInsight’s Arwai said.

“All we need is one giant storm, and will there be a repeat of what happened a few weeks ago?” he said.

In the future, Southwest may cancel more flights due to bad weather to prevent the domino effect that occurred this time, Garrow of the Georgia Institute of Technology said.

“Southwest has a big incentive to get it right,” she said. “Some long-term investment in infrastructure will help, but I think the real test is whether you can bring your operational performance back up to par with your competitors.”

But the tight margin for errors in the aviation industry means Southwest won’t be the last airline in the future to face major disruptions. Fuller planes mean there are fewer seats available to accommodate these passengers.

“The problem is, when a disruption occurs, how big is it and how quickly can an airline get back with minimal cancellations, minimal delays, and return to normal operations?” said Ahmed Abdelgani, Associate Dean for Research and Professor of Operations Management at Embry-Riddle Aviation University. “At this level, we don’t have a way to completely eliminate this issue from the system.”