February 1, 2023

Why Southwest is still melting down

4 min read

New York

Thursday is the day. A Christmas storm that dumped several feet of snow on much of the U.S. was mostly gone by Monday. Still, Southwest Airlines canceled another 2,300 flights today, long after its rivals resumed normal service.

The airline said it was. The normal schedule is set to resume on Friday.. Why did Southwest take so long to get its operations back on track?

The Southwest was unlucky with the storm’s location and timing. The company also has a unique model of operations, focused on small planes flying to small cities, which failed spectacularly when the US became deep frozen and covered in snow. And outdated scheduling technology left Southwest scrambling to match crews to planes.

The airline cut its flight schedule by two-thirds this week to deliberately restructure its operations, which CEO Bob Jordan likened. Reassembling a big puzzle. Southwest aims to resume normal service by the end of the week.

Are you stuck in an airport due to Southwest? Share your story..

The storm hit Chicago and Denver hard, with two major hubs in the Southwest – Chicago Midway Airport and Denver International Airport. And the so-called “tripledemic” is on the rise across the U.S., leaving people and their families — including Southwest workers and their families — sick with Covid, flu and RSV.

Southwest said that before the storm last week, staffing levels at the Denver airport were so low that it “Operational Emergency” Personnel Procedures. Denver quickly became one of the nation’s top problem spots for cancellations.

Although Southwest says it was fully staffed for the holiday weekend, the illness makes it difficult to accommodate increased system pressures. Many airlines still lack sufficient staff to recover when events such as bad weather cause delays or exceed the hours flight crews are allowed to work under federal safety regulations.

Southwest’s schedule includes short flights with tight turnaround times, which caused some problems during the storm. Unlike its competitors, who operate with a “hub-and-spoke” model, Southwest prides itself on a “point-to-point” business strategy that allows passengers to travel directly between smaller markets. allows

“We don’t have a common hub like other major airlines do,” Captain Mike Santoro, vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, told CNN on Tuesday. “We fly a point-to-point network, which can put our crew in the wrong places without airplanes.”

United, American and Delta typically fly from smaller markets to hubs, requiring passengers flying between smaller cities to change planes. But this model has the operational advantage of quickly flying crews and aircraft out of the hub to where they are needed.

Southwest’s “point-to-point” model Involves flying aircraft on consecutive routes and picking up crew at these points.

“When they have cancellations in one area, it really escalates, because their crews and their pilots aren’t necessarily in the right position,” said Jeff Windau, senior equity analyst at Equity Research for Edward Jones. I am.” “They just kind of build from one city to another, and when that gets disrupted, it’s very difficult to get the operation running smoothly again.”

Santoro said the Southwest meltdown was the worst disruption he had experienced in 16 years at the airline.

Southwest’s old scheduling software couldn’t keep up with the constant changes, and became the main culprit for cancellations soon after the storm cleared, according to a transcript of a call Southwest Chief Operating Officer Andrew Watterson made with employees. According to CNN. Source of aviation

Waterson explained that Southwest’s crew schedulers worked frantically to set up a new schedule, matching available crew with aircraft that were ready to fly. But the Federal Aviation Administration strictly regulates when flight crews can work, complicating Southwest’s scheduling efforts.

“The process of connecting these crew members to the aircraft cannot be handled by our technology,” Waterson said.

Southwest ran out of planes that were ready to fly with available crew, but the company’s scheduling software couldn’t match them quickly and accurately, Waterson added.

“As a result, we’ve had to ask our staff schedulers to do it manually, and that’s extraordinarily difficult,” he said. “It’s a painful, long process.”

Waterson noted that manual scheduling left Southwest with an incredibly fragile house of cards that could collapse quickly if the company ran into a problem.

“They’ll make a lot of progress, and then there’ll be some more obstacles, and it’ll open up their work,” Waterson said. “So, we had several days where we got close to eliminating the problem, and then had to reset it.”

In reducing the company’s flights by two-thirds, Southwest should have “more than enough staff resources to handle this activity,” Waterson said.

Southwest says it is confident it will resume normal operations soon. It has just 39 cancellations planned for Friday, according to flight tracking site FlightAware.

Mike Santoro told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday that pilots have been told the airline is “mostly full schedule coming in on Friday.”

But now the company is facing investigations by the Department of Transportation and the Denver airport.

Wall Street feared that defeat could cost Southwest dearly. Investors sold off the stock, wiping $2 billion in market value from the company’s shares over the course of a week. The airline’s stock price returned about 3% on Thursday, but is down about 9% since its close on Dec. 23, just before the mass cancellation.

—CNN’s Ross Levitt, Greg Wallace and Alicia Wallace contributed to this report.

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