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5 things to know about Southwest’s catastrophic collapse: NPR

5 things to know about Southwest’s catastrophic collapse: NPR

Travelers search for their bags in a Southwest Airlines hold at Denver International Airport on Dec. 28 in Denver, Colo.

Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

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Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

Travelers search for their bags in a Southwest Airlines hold at Denver International Airport on Dec. 28 in Denver, Colo.

Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

Families with young children stranded at the airport for Christmas. Flight attendants and pilots sleeping on the floor. Large piles of luggage – some with gifts inside, some with medicine – got stuck at the wrong airport. And frustrated travelers put on hold for hour after hour.

Southwest Airlines cascading failure has checked a veritable bingo card of travel nightmares. And while every airline faced bad weather and cancellations last week, only Southwest fell apart.

Southwest now says operations have returned to normal. But what happened? What will be next? The company still has a lot to explain, but here’s what we know so far:

It wasn’t just the weatherā€”outdated systems helped cause the crisis

A massive winter storm caused the first flight disruptions, but it was the company’s internal software systems that appear to have turned a normal problem into a stunning disaster.

Many airlines use a “hub and spoke” system, which routes flights through a few major airports to cut costs. Southwest has long prided itself on using a “point to point” system instead. It is a leaner system from day to day, but also means many complex planning challenges to get aircraft, pilots and aircrews to the right place at the right time.

By all accounts, Southwest used very outdated computer systems to manage the complicated system.

Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan compared the airline’s debacle to a “gigantic puzzle” that needs to be solved. And he said the company clearly needed to accelerate its “already existing plans to upgrade systems.”

The Ministry of Transport and Communications says it is launching its own investigation into exactly what went wrong.

The epic failure of the airline surprised many

Southwest is not a fly-by-night operation, or a bare-bones low-cost airline where customers have low expectations and misery is part of the bargain. It was a well-respected – in some cases, even loved – company.

“They have the best reputation for customer service and management agility,” airline analyst Richard Aboulafia told NPR. “They’re usually pretty good at responding to crises.”

Customers are confused by how terrible this experience has been.

“I’ve got 50,000 miles on them,” said Hillary Chang, a traveler whose bag was lost in the Southwest Cyclone. Now, she says, “I’ve thought about it … I’m open to dating another airline.”

The customers are not the only ones who are angry. Employees are also frustrated

The president of the union representing Southwest pilots called the Christmas meltdown “catastrophic,” but told NPR that he, for one, was not it surprised by that – and neither were most pilots.

“We still use, not only IT from the 90s, but also processes [from] when our airline was one-tenth the size,” he said. “And it’s really just not scaled for an operation like we have today.”

There were several scheduling meltdowns in the past two years that, while smaller than the Christmas disaster, indicated that Southwest had a problem. Pilots were ready to work, but Southwest did not have planes or routes available for them. The same situation unfolded in this disaster, and many pilots and flight crews took to social media to express frustration with their own company.

Customers can be reimbursed for “reasonable” expenses (…whatever that means)

Southwest is required by law to offer a full refund for a canceled flight. It has also previously committed to rebooking passengers at no extra charge, for any avoidable cancellation or extreme delay, and offering vouchers for meals and hotel accommodation.

And Southwest seems willing to cover even more costs for this debacle. But the company has not offered clear guidelines on what expenses it will cover, saying only that it will honor “reasonable requests for reimbursement for meals, hotels and alternative transportation (such as rental cars or tickets on other airlines).”

And of course, there are no refunds for missing Christmas with the family, or spending a night at the airport with a cranky toddler and no luggage.

Southwest has a lot of excuses, and not a ton of answers

For its part, Southwest apologizes. Really Sorry. The CEO apologizes. The Chief Commercial Officer apologizes. “We can’t apologize enough,” customer service reps tell outraged passengers on Twitter. (They appear to be giving it his besteven though.)

In the meantime, FAQs on Southwest’s “Travel Disruption” page doesn’t seem as much useful as Kafkask.

What should you do if you get an error message while trying to reorder online? “We encourage you to continue trying to rebook,” advises Southwest.

What should you do if you can’t find any seats on flights? “We encourage you to keep looking,” says Southwest.

And what if you’re on hold for hours and can’t get through to an agent? “If you need to reach us urgently, you can keep calling.”

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