What the Hell Is Happening with Southwest?

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What the Hell Is Happening with Southwest?

You’ve no doubt heard the horror stories about Southwest Airlines this week. The carrier has canceled the majority of its flights since Christmas, stranding thousands of passengers and attracting unwelcome attention from the Department of Transportation. The cancellations will continue through the week, with thousands of Southwest flights already canceled for tomorrow; in fact, 99% of all flights canceled in the U.S. for tomorrow are from Southwest. Every airline has suffered from the extreme winter storm that hit most of the country over the weekend, but Southwest has scrapped more flights than every other American carrier combined. Whatever is happening to Southwest isn’t happening to the other airlines.

FlightAware, which tracks flight delays and cancellations from around the globe, has a chart that sums up Southwest’s current issues. Yesterday Southwest canceled 2909 flights—71% of its schedule. The American carrier with the second highest cancellations yesterday was Delta, which canceled 276 flights, which made up 9% of its schedule. Southwest had to cancel over 2600 more flights than the next airline on the chart. That’s genuinely incredible, and not in a good way.

Even people who don’t have any reason to care about this specific carrier or the industry in general are wondering what the hell is wrong with Southwest. Why is this one airline falling apart while other carriers, both bigger and smaller, have already largely recovered from the winter storm? Do their computers not work? Are they all still drunk on eggnog? Are they just incompetent?

Well, with that last one, at least, the answer is kind of.

David Goldman has a good analysis of the situation over at CNN. It’s not just the storm, or the rise in infection rates for Covid, RSV, and the flu, Goldman writes. It’s also partially the result of Southwest’s scheduling and the company’s underfunded, outdated infrastructure. Southwest tends to cut it close with a tight schedule that doesn’t leave a lot of leeway, so it’s more prone to a domino effect of delays and cancellations. That makes it harder to reschedule crews in a timely fashion, which leads to canceled flights. Also Southwest’s call system is basically broken this week, collapsing under the weight of not just passengers whose flights were canceled, but of Southwest employees who are calling in to get their updated schedules. There aren’t enough people to handle those calls, and so vital information isn’t going out to employees. Goldman quotes one Southwest pilot who notes that the airline’s phone and computer systems are basically right out of the 1990s—not the most comforting revelation for a company who we trust to rocket us tens of thousands of feet in the air. Between the extremely tight schedule and the aging technology, Southwest hasn’t been able to react to the problems caused by the storm as quickly or nimbly as other airlines.

A statement that Southwest released yesterday blames the impact of the storm while briefly mentioning the company’s struggles with scheduling:

We were fully staffed and prepared for the approaching holiday weekend when the severe weather swept across the continent, where Southwest is the largest carrier in 23 of the top 25 travel markets in the U.S. These operational conditions forced daily changes to our flight schedule at a volume and magnitude that still has the tools our teams use to recover the airline operating at capacity.

Southwest is a low-cost carrier, so it doesn’t offer the same amenities or perks of carriers like Delta or United. It might not be the best strategy to bring that corner-cutting mentality to the backend, though. If its information technology really hails from the Clinton era, Southwest probably should’ve thought about modernizing that at some point in the past two decades.

This isn’t the first time Southwest has had a large spate of cancellations. As Goldman points out, the airline saw similar issues in Oct. 2021, again the result of weather and staffing problems. This is something Southwest leadership is aware of, and they haven’t done what they need to to fix it. Granted the pandemic was devastating for the airline industry, but that started in 2020. The decades-old systems that Southwest is reportedly running on should’ve been updated well before that point.

Southwest hopes to return to normal operations by next week. Until then, it’s letting passengers with tickets through Jan. 2, 2023, rebook flights without any fees, as long as it’s between the same two cities, and fulfilled within 30 days of the original booking. Or customers can request a refund through that same website, and hopefully find a seat on an airline that’s capable of flying people to where they want to go.

Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.

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