Southwest Airlines is hoping to end a week of debacle and bring back nearly 4,000 flights on Friday as it looks for ways to prevent a repeat of one of the worst operational disasters in its history.
After canceling more than 15,700 flights in the eight days since Dec. 22, the Dallas-based air carrier said on Thursday that it finally has the pilots, flight attendants and planes to return to normal hours on Friday. To make this possible, the company said it had to cancel two-thirds of its flights between Tuesday and Thursday to stem a wave of cancellations that was mounting by the day and leaving millions of passengers stranded over the Christmas holiday. They went.
Leaders blamed the issues on bad weather and an “overloaded” crew rescheduling technology system that could not keep up with the task of reassigning thousands of pilots and flight attendants to key winter season bases in Denver and Chicago.
But during a media call Thursday, CEO Bob Jordan, chief operating officer Andrew Watterson and other senior Southwest managers had fewer answers about whether another meltdown could happen again.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my 35 years on the network in terms of the impact, the level of transactions, the complexity of the solution, all of those things — none of that is an excuse,” Jordan said during the call. , “But there will be priorities that come out of responding to this because this is not something we want to do again to our customers or our employees.”
Southwest leaders are unsure how many passengers will need to be accommodated in the coming days as the level of disruption was so severe that many chose other forms of transportation, bought expensive last-minute flights on other airlines or postponed their vacations. Totally missed the holidays. The breakdown lasted for over a week and extended through the Christmas weekend.
About 2.3 million passengers were disrupted during the meltdown.
“We don’t know how many people still need to travel,” Watson said. “It depends on who still wants to travel, so to speak. And so easily the first five days of the year, I can see that if people need to travel there will be room for them. “
It wasn’t until late Wednesday that Southwest even communicated to employees, many still trapped in hotel rooms far from home, that it would attempt to resume flight schedules on Friday. Southwest told customers Thursday morning and then communicated with the public later that day. Southwest put tickets back on sale for Friday and the weekend after halting sales earlier in the week to prevent those bookings from being canceled as well as to give pilots and flight attendants room to relocate.
Southwest spent the past two days developing a plan to get pilots and flight attendants back in position to resume flights originally scheduled before the meltdown. Reducing flights to about 2,500 a day gave the carrier resources to track down flight attendants and pilots scattered across the country and develop strategies to eliminate the cascading problems.
Watterson said that along with the automated system for reassigning pilots and flight attendants, Southwest trained a group of about 1,000 employees to help manually reassign crew members, giving them individual called.
After going through this series of weather and operational disruptions, Watson said the company could reimplement that process in the event of another failure.
Otherwise, it would take years for the airline to fully implement the new Crew Scheduling Technology systems.
“It’s just a big and complicated project,” Jordan said. “It is not an excuse; It’s just a fact.
“I think one of the discussions will be what we can do, of course, to accelerate it and accelerate that growth in the critical areas of the plan.”
He said the company is working to upgrade and replace the old technology, but it takes time.
“We have a huge infrastructure spending plan every year — capital spending plan and technology and other areas, but a lot in technology,” he said. “And the systems are complex. We have legacy systems in some cases. And it only takes a while to grind through those replacements. So these are multi-year projects.”
The delays and cancellations have already prompted an examination from the Department of Transportation and scrutiny from politicians in Washington, D.C.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg sent a letter to Jordan on Thursday demanding that the company look after customers who are financially affected by travel disruptions.
“These front-line employees are not to blame for mistakes at the leadership level,” Buttigieg wrote in the letter. “I hope and expect that you will comply with the law, take the steps set forth in this letter, and provide me with a prompt update on Southwest’s efforts to do right by customers.”
And after meeting with representatives of the company’s three unions on Wednesday, Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas, and Jake Elzey, R-Arlington, issued a joint statement Thursday, saying:
“There has always been strong bipartisan support in Congress for the development of Southwest Airlines …
“However, it is clear that for some time Southwest has run unacceptable risks and tried to get by with unacceptably thin margins of error – both in staffing and technology – and that this crisis is predictable and preventable.” Was both.
“Paying out hundreds of millions in dividends to shareholders and a healthy profit through the first three quarters of this year clearly shows that Southwest could afford to address the issues, but has chosen not to.” He challenged Southwest officials to properly compensate passengers and take steps to prevent future meltdowns.
Even as customer cancellations pile up at airports across the country, Southwest Airlines tried to communicate with customers that it has responded to “reasonable requests” for hotels, meals, transportation and even reimbursement for tickets on other airlines. Planned to respect”.
“We have informed customers that if we have canceled their flights, they are eligible for a full refund,” said Ryan Green, chief commercial officer. “We are going to reimburse customers for those travel expenses if they have to make alternate travel arrangements. We will send them a customer’s bag and it will be no cost to them. And over the past few days, we’ve pitched websites to make it as easy as possible for our customers.
He added that the company would evaluate the cost of compensating for other contingencies ranging from flight disruptions.
However, Green acknowledged that there are complexities, such as determining which requests for reimbursement are appropriate and figuring out how long it will take to process all claims.
“It’s going to take weeks realistically for us to get back to customers,” he said. “We are working diligently and automating as much as we can so that we can process quickly. But it is our goal to get this done as quickly as possible.”
According to Flightaware.com, as of Thursday afternoon, Southwest has canceled just 39 flights for Friday. It canceled more than 2,000 flights every day this week, which were scaled back until Monday.
Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said the carrier tried Wednesday to get crew members back to their home base airports so they can fly out Thursday and resume regular flights Friday.
“Hopefully a fresh start on Friday is in the right place,” Murray said.
While Southwest was operating only 1,500 of its 4,000 daily scheduled passenger flights this week, it conducted 104 “ferry flights” on Thursday just to move crew members and airplanes, Watson said.
Southwest plans to offer nearly 4,000 flights a day over New Year’s weekend as millions of passengers look to return home, college and work after the holiday.
Union leaders have blamed airline leadership for badly downplaying company technology behind the demands of running such a complex operation.
In the memo, Waterson said they plan to keep pilots and flight attendants on the flights that were originally scheduled rather than try to recreate the assignments from scratch.
“Customers want to fly what they originally bought, so going to that schedule really requires the least amount of change and is the least disruptive,” Watson said.