Southwest Airlines hopes to end a weeklong debacle and bring back nearly 4,000 flights Friday as it figures out how to prevent a repeat of one of the worst operational disasters in its history.
After canceling more than 15,700 flights over an eight-day stretch since Dec. 22, the Dallas-based airline said Thursday it finally has pilots, flight attendants and planes in place to return to a normal schedule Friday. To do so, the company said it had to close two-thirds of its flights between Tuesday and Thursday to stem a cascade of cancellations that escalated by the day and left millions of passengers stranded during the Christmas holiday.
Executives blamed the problems on bad weather and an “overmatched”[ads1]; crew reassignment technology system that couldn’t keep up with the task of reassigning thousands of pilots and flight attendants after winter weather hit major bases in Denver and Chicago.
But during a media call Thursday, CEO Bob Jordan, chief operating officer Andrew Watterson and other senior Southwest executives were tight-lipped about whether another merger could happen again.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my 35 years in terms of the impact on the network, the level of transactions, the complexity of the solutions, all of those things — none of those are excuses,” Jordan said on the call. “But there will be priorities that come out of responding to this because this is not something we want to happen again for our customers or for our employees.”
Southwest executives are unsure exactly how many passengers will need to be accommodated in the coming days because the disruptions were so deep that many chose other modes of transportation, bought expensive last-minute flights on other airlines or missed their holiday vacations altogether . the breakdown lasted more than a week and extended over the Christmas weekend.
Around 2.3 million passengers were disrupted during the meltdown.
“We don’t know how many people still need to travel,” Watterson said. “It depends on who still wants to travel, so to speak. And so easily for the first five days of the year, I can see that there is room for people if they need to travel.”
It wasn’t until late Wednesday that Southwest even communicated to employees, many still stranded in hotel rooms far from home, that they would attempt to reset the flight schedule fresh on Friday. Southwest told customers Thursday morning and communicated it to the public later that day. Southwest also put tickets back on sale for Friday and the weekend after halting sales earlier in the week to prevent bookings from being canceled as well as make room to relocate pilots and flight attendants.
Southwest spent the last two days developing a plan to get pilots and flight attendants back into position to resume travel they had originally planned before the meltdown. Cutting about 2,500 flights a day gave the airline the resources to track down flight attendants and pilots scattered across the country and develop a strategy to end the pervasive problems.
With the automated systems for reassigning pilots and flight attendants useless, Southwest trained a group of about 1,000 employees to help reschedule crew members manually, calling them individually, Watterson said.
After going through this series of weather and operational disruptions, Watterson said the company may reuse that process in the event of another breakdown.
Otherwise, it will take years for the airline to fully implement new technology systems for staffing planning.
“It’s just a big and complicated project,” Jordan said. “It is not meant to be an apology; it’s just a fact.”
“I think one discussion out of this will be what we can do, certainly, in critical areas of the plan to accelerate that and accelerate that development.”
The company has been working to upgrade and replace older technology, but that takes time, he said.
“We have a very large infrastructure spending plan every year — investment plan and technology and other areas, but a lot in technology,” he said. “And the systems are complicated. We have legacy systems in some cases. And it’s just a period of time to grind through these replacements. So they’re multi-year projects.”
The delays and cancellations have already prompted an investigation by the Department of Transportation and scrutiny from politicians in Washington, DC
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg sent a letter to Jordan on Thursday demanding that the company take care of customers financially burdened by the travel disruptions.
“These front-line employees are not to blame for management-level failures,” Buttigieg wrote in the letter. “I hope and expect that you will follow the law, take the steps outlined in this letter, and provide me with a prompt update on Southwest’s efforts to do justice to the customers it has wronged.”
And after meeting with representatives from three of the company’s unions on Wednesday, Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas, and Jake Ellzey, R-Arlington, issued a joint statement Thursday that said in part:
“There has always been strong bipartisan support in Congress for the growth of Southwest Airlines…
“But it is clear that for some time Southwest has taken unacceptable risks and tried to get by with an unacceptably thin margin of error – both in terms of staffing and technology – and that this crisis was both predictable and preventable.
“The payout of hundreds of millions in dividends to shareholders and a healthy profit through the first three quarters of this year clearly shows that Southwest can afford to address its problems but has chosen not to.” They challenged Southwest executives to compensate passengers fairly and take steps to prevent future meltdowns.
As customer cancellations piled up alongside mountains of luggage at airports across the country, Southwest Airlines tried to communicate with customers that it planned to “accommodate reasonable requests” for refunds for hotels, food, transportation and even tickets on other airlines.
“We have notified customers that if we cancel their flights, they are eligible for a full refund,” said commercial director Ryan Green. “If they had to make alternative travel arrangements, we will cover the travel expenses of the customers. We send a customer’s bag to them and it costs them nothing. And over the last couple of days we’ve been setting up websites to make it as easy as possible for our customers.”
The company will consider covering the costs of other extenuating circumstances from the flight cancellations, he said.
Green acknowledged, however, that there are complications, such as determining which requests are reasonable for reimbursement and figuring out how long it will take to process all the claims.
“Realistically, it will take us several weeks here to get back to customers,” he said. “We’re working as diligently as we can and automating as much of it as we can to process them quickly. But it’s our goal to work through it as quickly as possible.”
Southwest has canceled just 39 flights for Friday as of noon Thursday, according to Flightaware.com. It canceled more than 2,000 flights each day this week, stretching back to Monday.
Southwest Airlines Pilot Association President Casey Murray said the airline spent Wednesday trying to get crew members back to their home base airports so they could be deployed Thursday and be in place to begin flying Friday.
“The hope is to start a new Friday with everyone in the right place,” Murray said.
While Southwest operated only about 1,500 of its 4,000 daily scheduled flights this week, it also operated 104 “ferry flights” on Thursday just to move crew members and flights around the system to be ready for Friday, Watterson said.
Southwest plans to offer nearly 4,000 flights a day over the New Year’s weekend as millions of travelers look to return home, to college and back to work after the holiday break.
Union leaders have blamed the airline’s management for allowing the company’s technology to fall woefully behind the demands of running such a complex operation.
In the memo, Watterson said they plan to put pilots and flight attendants on flights for which they were originally scheduled rather than trying to rebuild missions from scratch.
“Customers want to fly what they originally bought, so following that schedule actually requires the least changes and is the least disruptive,” Watterson said.