“This is the worst event of this kind that I have ever experienced.” These clear words from Southwest boss Bob Jordan show how big the chaos is at the American low-cost airline. It hasn’t been able to return to normal operations since a severe winter storm hit the US at Christmas.
On Boxing Day, Southwest canceled more than two-thirds of its flights, and cancellations and delays continue. The airline is hit much harder than its competitors.
Southwest went into the holiday season with such confidence. Because on Thanksgiving, the second most important holiday in the country, the airline only had to cancel around 70 of around 26,000 flights – a remarkable result. But then there was a chain reaction that threw everything out of balance, as airline boss Jordan wrote in a message to employees circulating on social networks.
The storm was just the beginning. “It started with Winter Storm Elliott, which put a lot of pressure on our ground operations. The extremely cold weather forced us to limit the time our staff were exposed to ground control,” Jordan said.
“Equipment froze, passenger boarding bridges froze, fuel stalled, so we had to adjust our network and sometimes shut down base operations for a while,” it said. You got over it. Like many other airlines. But then the problems really started again.
Because of the weather-related outages, Southwest crews weren’t where they should have been. Unlike United or American, for example, the airline does not operate via hubs, but flies point-to-point connections.
“We had people who were allowed to fly. We had aircraft that were available, but the process of assigning those crew members to the aircraft could not be handled by our technology.”
The system that Southwest uses is called Skysolver – even if it hasn’t lived up to it in the past few days. Instead of solving problems, it became the main reason why the winter storm was such a debacle for the airline.
Telephone lines were congested, and Southwest crews attempting an assignment were unable to reach the flight planning department. Some shared screenshots on social media showing wait times of eight hours and more – meaning they had to wait a full working day for instructions while flights were stuck for lack of crew.
The airline was desperate to find out where its crew members were, union officials told The Wall Street Journal. After the total failure of Skysolver, the flight planners had to comb through the documents by hand and allocate crews.
Many employees worked extra shifts over Christmas to allow at least some of the flights to take off. The airline is only gradually recovering from these problems. Southwest currently suspects that from Friday (December 30) you can slowly move towards normal operations.
Unions criticize that it was only a matter of time before the collapse. The old systems have been finding absurd “solutions” to problems for years, for example sending crew members on absurd sightseeing flights through the country as passengers on their way to an assignment. And in fact, Southwest boss Bob Jordan already admitted in the summer that the company had grown faster than the technology on which it was based.
The US government is also critical of the airline. Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg said he had made it clear to management that the airline would be held accountable for the problems, as travelers and employees experienced “unacceptable disruption”.
Southwest management understood that something had to change. One is in the process of building or buying a replacement for the defective system. Until then, it is to be hoped that no second winter storm will hit the USA.
This article was written by Laura Frommberg
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The original for this article “The chain reaction that led to the Southwest disaster” comes from aeroTelegraph.