Southwest Airlines Gears Up for a Normal Flight Schedule on Friday After Mass Cancellations

Southwest Airlines Gears Up for a Normal Flight Schedule on Friday After Mass Cancellations

Southwest Airlines Co. executives LUV 3.70% said the airline was preparing to resume its full flight schedule on Friday, lifting restrictions on ticket sales and restructuring crew schedules after an operational meltdown caused it to cancel thousands of flights last week .

The executives also vowed to continue work on updating technology systems that company and labor officials have blamed for exacerbating Southwest’s problems, leaving scheduling systems bogged down and crews scattered as the airline struggled to recover from a storm. winter.

“I can’t imagine not increasing focus in certain areas, maybe shifting priorities based on what we’ve learned,” Chief Executive Bob Jordan told reporters Thursday. “This has been a tremendous disruption and we can’t have that again.”

Southwest canceled nearly two-thirds of its flights on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday as part of an effort to dig out of a cascading meltdown after last week’s severe winter storm threw operations into disarray. While other airlines were able to recover from the brutal weather within days, Southwest continued to spiral.

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Southwest has canceled nearly 16,000 flights over the past week, according to FlightAware. The airline canceled 39 flights scheduled for Friday that chief operating officer Andrew Watterson said it was unable to staff, but executives said they believe they are ready for a smooth operation Friday.

Mr. Jordan told employees Thursday morning in a video message that Southwest’s reduced operations had helped, with 95% of its flights on time Wednesday. “Together we did what we had to do to position ourselves to operate our regular schedule tomorrow,” he said.

As it works to resume normal operations, Southwest faces increased scrutiny from regulators and lawmakers, who have said they are closely monitoring the airline’s response to the crisis.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg wrote Thursday to Mr. Jordan, describing the disruption as “unacceptable”. He reiterated his expectation that the airline will assist stranded passengers, honor commitments to cover passenger expenses, issue prompt refunds and ensure passengers are reunited with their bags. The airline said it is offering these accommodations now.

Union leaders representing Southwest pilots, flight attendants and other workers have blamed what they said was the airline’s lack of investment in technology over the years for many of its problems. Executives have acknowledged the need to improve inefficient platforms, such as the SkySolver system it uses to redo crew schedules during outages, which was overwhelmed by the scale of the problem over the weekend.

Baggage Stuck in the Southwest Airlines Cancellation Fiasco

Mr. Watterson said Thursday in a call with reporters that the upgrade process had already begun. Southwest has reassigned crew to its own department, hired more staff and made what he described as incremental improvements to current systems as it began looking for replacements. He said the “modest work” that had been done had begun to pay off this fall, but the winter storm created unique challenges.

As the airline begins to ponder the broader questions of what it could have done differently, executives said their most immediate task this week has been to put the airline back together — making sure pilots and flight attendants are where they need to be. be, reuniting bags with their owners and making sure the planes are fixed and ready to take off.

In an effort to make sure the airline is ready for Friday, Southwest added several flights for passengers on Thursday and moved planes and crew to position them, Mr. Watterson said.

Ticket sales resumed, executives said, as the airline had limited bookings on remaining flights for most of this week, hoping to avoid a scenario where customers bought seats on flights that would eventually be canceled. The airline also wanted to make sure seats would be available to get pilots and flight attendants where they needed to be on Friday, Mr. Watterson said.

Southwest Airlines was transporting planes and crew to ensure the company was ready for a full flight schedule. Photo: Matt York/Associated Press

To get to this point, Southwest asked for volunteers to help work through a deluge of tasks to overhaul schedules for pilots and flight attendants.

At the height of the disruption, airline crew schedules had to revert to manually assigning pilots and flight attendants to flights when automated software could not keep pace with the volume of changes. Even with the smaller schedule, the group was overwhelmed by the remaining workload, Mr. Watterson told employees this week.

Former crew programmers working in other areas of the business stepped in to triage incoming phone calls, according to an internal memo Wednesday from Lee Kinnebrew, Southwest’s vice president of flight operations, and Brendan Conlon, vice president of crew planning. Other groups of employees were being trained to support the overworked planners.

Mr Watterson said the “volunteer army” has been trained on the systems and could be called in to restart if the airline starts to see signs that the current technology is becoming overwhelmed as it works on wider fixes. Airline executives said they are confident existing technology systems can handle the airline’s normal operations while it works on a plan to update them.

Southwest’s ground operations staff worked to scan thousands of lost bags to figure out where they ended up. The airline set up new call centers to investigate missing items and update customers, Mr. Kinnebrew and Mr. Conlon wrote. The last step was to coordinate with FedEx Corp. and other delivery companies to truck baggage between airports and reduce the strain on Southwest’s remaining flights this week, they wrote.

Running a smaller schedule presented some new technical challenges, executives said. Planes can’t stay parked for long before they need to be put into short- or long-term storage, so the airline had to rotate through its fleet to ensure the plane didn’t sit idle for too long. Maintenance workers had to go out to various locations to perform inspections and routine work on aircraft that were not in their usual locations, Kurt Kinder, vice president of maintenance operations, wrote to employees on Wednesday.

Southwest Airlines has canceled nearly 16,000 flights since Dec. 22 as customers struggled to reach their destinations and find lost luggage. The airline said its reduced schedule will last until at least Thursday. Photo: Albuquerque Journal/Zuma Press

Email Alison Sider at [email protected]

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