A blast of severe winter weather last week caused thousands of Southwest Airlines flight cancellations and collapsed into a complete meltdown of the flight system. In the days since, the carrier̵[ads1]7;s fight to recover has been slow and, some passengers claim, largely unsuccessful. But experts say Southwest’s mess is actually the culmination of problems that have been building up for years.
Since Dec. 22, the beleaguered airline has canceled more than half of its typical flight schedule, and as of late Wednesday, about 87% of all canceled flights in the U.S. were from Southwest alone, according to industry trackers FlightRadar24 and FlightAware.
The terrible situation, which has irritated passengers and caught the eye by government regulators, has widened this week as other major airlines recover from the extreme cold, ice and snow that gripped much of the United States over the holiday weekend.
The company has apologized to its passengers and employees for the daily cancellations and reduced capacity by about two-thirds on Thursday, according to a CNN review of flight data.
This week’s meltdown is not the first time the company has found itself in this predicament. In October 2021, Southwest canceled more than 2,000 flights over a four-day period. While the airline blamed the crisis in part on bad weather in Florida, Southwest canceled flights far longer than its competitors.
But much of the Southwest’s mess may be the result of long-term issues unrelated to the weather.
Chief among them are outdated internal processes and information technology. Southwest’s scheduling system hasn’t changed much since the 1990s, according to Capt. Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association.
Southwest has also acknowledged the company’s outdated infrastructure. “We’ve talked a lot about modernizing operations, and the need to do that,” CEO Bob Jordan told employees in a memo obtained by CNN.
Over the years, the airline cancellation rate has crept up, tripling from 2013 to September 2022, the latest data available from the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics, which tracks airline performance, and well before the recent crisis.
The agency has only released data for 2022 through September. To ensure a fair comparison, CNN only analyzed the carrier’s data from January to September in previous years.
Cancellation rates among airlines vary from year to year, depending on weather and other factors, such as Covid-19, which resulted in major industry-wide disruption in the early months of the 2020 pandemic.
But Southwest has consistently underperformed its competitors in terms of cancellations, according to agency data.
For several years over the past decade, the airline had higher cancellation rates compared to other major airlines, the data show.
It’s not just cancellations. Southwest has also seen its on-time percentage plummet in recent years to its lowest point in a decade. Through September 2022, well before the airline’s current struggles, only about 7 out of 10 of its flights have arrived on time.