As Southwest Airlines recovers from one meltdown, how does it prevent another?
Reeling from one of the worst months in the company’s history, Southwest Airlines executives are scrambling to figure out what, if any, options exist to prevent another cancellation meltdown.
Make thousands of passengers unhappy? Apologies, refunds, refunds and flight credits should help.
Fix and improve “overmatched” crew scheduling systems? Eventually.
Stop another wave of cancellations the next time bad weather hits? It’s the only thing that matters if Southwest hopes to recover, travel industry veterans and analysts said.
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Flights for Dallas-based Southwest Airlines have largely returned to normal over the past six days since the company shut down two-thirds of its operations to recover from a cascading avalanche of 17,000 cancellations during the busy Christmas travel holiday.
The carrier is now trying to figure out how to fix a crew scheduling software system that buckled and broke after a winter storm hit major bases in Denver and Chicago. Thousands of pilots and flight attendants were out of the country and unaccounted for as airline management scrambled to locate them and get them back in the air, only for plans to repeatedly falter.
“There will be immediate work to figure out what lessons are learned here and how we keep this from happening again, because it can’t happen again,” CEO Bob Jordan said in a video message to Southwest’s 66,000 employees.
Jordan and other Southwest leaders have acknowledged that it will take time — perhaps months and years — to replace the aging technology infrastructure that led to the breakup. That system, called SkySolver, was unable to keep up with the number of cancellations and delays as it tried to find new flights for pilots and flight attendants.
In the meantime, they will need plans to prevent another severe storm from crippling flight operations and stranding millions more passengers.
“Some of these systems are so complex, they take time, and you can’t do it in three months or six months,” Jordan said on a call with reporters last week. “When we replaced our maintenance system, it was a multi-year project.”
Analysts and airline industry veterans said the company may have to take drastic steps as it invests in a new system to schedule and accommodate pilots and flight attendants during periods of large delays and cancellations.
Southwest may need to significantly cut flights, rethink its trademark point-to-point network or take the expensive step of canceling large chunks of flights when severe storms are forecast, they said.
“It’s always reliability versus cost structure, and reliability is expensive,” said H. Blair Pomeroy, an assistant professor of business at the University of Pittsburgh and a former employee of American Airlines, United and Qatar Airways. “The best software in the world won’t get you out of this situation.”
“It’s really the people, the process and the technology,” Pomeroy said. “You need all three.”
After a wave of massive cancellations in 2021 and early 2022, as the airline industry recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic and reduced workforces, carriers like Southwest cut thousands of flights departing in the summer to ensure it could handle a increased free time. travelers.
Pomeroy said Southwest has few options but to cut schedules again, especially during peak periods when planes are more crowded and there are fewer options to rebook passengers. Southwest has planned its largest flight schedule in history for the coming months, including more than 130,000 flights in July, according to Cirium.
“One of the best practices in development that is so painful is early cancellation if there is bad weather in a region,” Pomeroy said. “But canceling in advance is so difficult because people can get upset and you lose money, especially if the weather isn’t that bad.”
Andrew Watterson, who took over as chief operating officer in October from longtime leader Mike Van De Ven, said the company has come up with a three-pronged plan to prevent another meltdown while accelerating a total software overhaul. with crew scheduling flaws.
First, executives created a system for the company to take over pilot and flight attendant rescheduling, using a team of about 1,000 volunteers at corporate headquarters who made phone calls to find out where crew members were and when they could fly again. . Second, it needs to make additional patches and changes to the crew modeling software. Third, he said, the company should come up with plans for key airports where pilots and flight attendants are stationed.
Watterson said it’s hard to say unequivocally that something will never happen again. “It’s almost an unfair question,” he said, “but you can say what you’re going to do to improve how you handle it next time, which I think would be a fair question.”
However, Southwest may have to change some old company practices to get to the root of the problems, said Kevin Woods, founder of Southlake-based aviation technology company Zulu Airline Systems.
“Southwest has invested in its own technology and that has been one of its main problems,” Woods said. “Outsourced technology is almost always better and more reliable because you have experts building it working at several companies.”
Above all, Southwest’s leaders will need to spend time looking carefully at their company’s philosophies around technology and reliability, said Bill Swelbar, an aviation analyst with Swelbar-Zhong Consultancy.
“The airline has to look at itself and it has to be introspective,” Swelbar said. “This isn’t the first time Southwest has been in the news for cancellations, so it’s dropped a few tea leaves.”
In October 2021, Southwest had an operational meltdown that led to 2,000 flight cancellations and cost $75 million in lost revenue. Estimates put the financial number this time in the $500 to $700 million range.
Union contracts will also have to be reworked for more flexibility and efficiency, and the company will have to listen to pilots and flight attendants who spent nights at airports as the company tried to track them down.
“They have to get operations, pilots, crew scheduling, all those people are going to have to sit down, get out of their silos and figure out how to solve this holistically.”
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