A Denver-based Southwest Airlines pilot spoke to Next about the airline’s meltdown that ruined Christmas for thousands.
DENVER — Southwest Airlines CEO pledged Tuesday to “double down on efforts” to upgrade technology inside the airline after a winter storm disrupted domestic airline operations and stranded thousands of passengers over the Christmas break.
In a video statement released late Tuesday afternoon, Bob Jordan blamed an unprecedented winter storm for the problem and apologized for the challenges his airline continues to grapple with as it works to reopen to full operations.
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“Obviously, we need to double down on our existing plans and upgrade our systems for these extreme situations so we never face what’s happening now,” Jordan said in a recorded statement posted on Southwest’s news release page. “
His statement came after pilots’ and cabin crew’s unions publicly challenged the airline’s claim that the fight over the airline’s schedule was caused by staffing issues and winter storm Elliott.
“Our COO and CEO mentioned for the first time today that this is the cause of it, it’s the infrastructure … the Southwest Pilots Association, which represents more than 10,000 pilots at the airline. “If you look Looking at our history of crashes, they will become more common and more severe, and it will take us longer to recover from them. Unfortunately, we were ill-prepared IT-wise and how we handled this ever-growing network that we had. “
One of the culprits for this week’s problems was Southwest’s crew scheduling system, which Nekouei said required pilots and crew to make phone calls to communicate where they needed to go or if they needed to call in sick.
“There was a backlog of 4-6 hours and people finally gave up,” he said.
Making sick calls, reporting fatigue or simply looking up information about flights is nearly impossible, said Corliss King, second vice president of Transit Workers Union Local 556, which represents flight attendants in the system.
“I think it’s hard for people to imagine your work being put on hold for 20 hours, 17 hours, five hours,” she said. “Usually it works. But when it doesn’t work, it’s disastrous. We’re asking them to take our flying and our technology up to the airline we have today. This isn’t the airline we were in 1971.”
Over the years, Southwest Airlines has grown exponentially, becoming one of the largest domestic airlines in the United States.
“We used to be a very small airline in the ’70s, and now we’re a behemoth — 4,000 flights a day — and they’re going to sell about 5,000 flights a day,” Nekouei said. “Our infrastructure, especially our IT infrastructure never kept up with it because the company didn’t reinvest in the company.”
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The manner in which Southwest flights operate may have contributed to these problems as well.
“Southwest is particularly vulnerable to weather issues, especially one as geographically widespread and intense as this storm,” travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt said in an email.
While other airlines operate as “hub-and-spoke” airlines, directing flights from hub airports to destinations and back to the hub, Southwest Airlines operates as a point-to-point airline, often operating flights from one coast to another.
“So when a widespread severe weather system hits, Southwest is impacted in a way no other airline is,” Harteveldt wrote. “Southwest also appears to have opted not to cancel flights early in various cities as the airline gains more insight into the size, extent and expected direction of travel of the storm. Other airlines have done so, plus their center / Radiating networks so they can recover faster. Compare American and United’s performance over the last few days to Southwest.”
A major concern with Southwest’s mass cancellations is the impact on the airline’s brand.
“We’re worried about those repeat customers right now,” Nekouei said. “And whether they have a long memory — especially if you ground them at Christmas — which is so sacred to people — whether they’ll come back for years to come.”
The airline will have to do a lot to regain trust.
“The result could be that Southwest has to ‘buy back’ disgruntled travelers at better fares than it might have charged,” Harteveldt wrote. “The airline may also have to run more promotions than planned. Some Southwest passengers have had to buy flights on other airlines at the last minute, which can be expensive, and they may find that other airline is as good as Southwest, maybe even better, and may not come back.”
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