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Southwest didn’t heed calls to upgrade tech before meltdown, unions say

A Dec. 21 internal memo sounded the alarm on staff shortages as a winter storm and the holidays loomed

Luggage belonging to Southwest Airlines passengers at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport on Tuesday. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Southwest Airlines’ pilot and flight attendant unions warned for years that the company’s rickety computer systems left the airline vulnerable. The carrier stuck with outdated technology and never heeded those warnings, they say.

Southwest’s overwhelmed technology — a scenario fueled by a punishing winter storm — left it this week facing some of the most difficult days in its half-century history, in some cases forcing managers to solve problems with pen and paper while crew members waited on hold for hours with schedulers.

The wave of cancellations continued to frustrate tens of thousands of travelers, as Southwest scrubbed roughly 2,500 flights on both Wednesday and Thursday while trying to recover from a meltdown that left it under growing scrutiny from lawmakers and federal regulators. The storm struck much of the country, but the speedy recovery of other airlines left Southwest the focus of anger as air passengers tried to return home from holiday travel.

Southwest’s competitors have capped fares on routes the airline flies, an effort to limit costs for travelers seeking alternate flights home. Meanwhile, Southwest’s troubles may have been foreshadowed in a Dec. 21 internal company memo that highlighted a worker shortage in Denver, where Southwest has significant operations and which was pounded by the storm.

The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association said Wednesday the collapse of the airline’s operations was avoidable, noting it has warned for years about the company’s unwillingness to modernize its operations. Company officials acknowledge current problems stem, in part, from an inability of internal logistics and scheduling systems to recover after widespread storm disruptions.

“For more than a decade, leadership shortcomings in adapting, innovating, and safeguarding our operations have led to repeated system disruptions, countless disappointed passengers, and millions in lost profits,” the union said in a statement.

The Transport Workers Union, whose Local 556 represents flight attendants at Southwest, likewise said on Twitter on Wednesday that the meltdown was avoidable, and said that the airline should have invested in passengers and workers, rather than paying dividends to shareholders.

Southwest declined to answer questions about its technology investments and didn’t share new information about its recovery efforts Wednesday. Its scheduling system relies on manual reports that crew members give of their locations and available time remaining to work within a period.

The pilot union also said the airline was unprepared for the severity of last week’s weather.

Southwest accounted for about 87 percent of Wednesday’s flight cancellations by domestic airlines and about 98 percent of Thursday’s grounded flights.

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About 60 percent of Wednesday’s scheduled Southwest flights were canceled, along with a similar proportion of flights that had been scheduled for Thursday, according to data from the tracking service FlightAware. Southwest’s 2,509 cancellations Wednesday affected air travel across the country, with Chicago Midway International Airport, Dallas Love Field Airport and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport seeing about 30 percent of outbound flights canceled.

The disruptions echo last year’s turbulent Christmas and New Year’s holiday period, during which a combination of bad weather and a wave of coronavirus cases prompted thousands of cancellations. But this time around, Southwest stands alone among airlines, prompting an inquiry by the Department of Transportation and the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee.

Southwest Airlines slashed thousands of U.S. flights again on Dec. 27, leaving passengers stranded across the country. (Video: Reuters)

Company executives began sounding the alarm about staffing concerns in Denver on the day the storm was moving in. The carrier has cited the storm’s effects in Denver and Chicago as factors in the service meltdown but also has said it was staffed to handle the holiday travel period.

Southwest’s vice president for ground operations, Chris Johnson, declared a “state of operational emergency” because of an “unusually high number of absences” of Denver-based ramp employees, including workers of afternoon and evening shifts calling in sick and taking personal days, according to a Dec. 21 memo obtained by The Washington Post.

Ramp workers are crucial to keeping airline flight schedules running on time, helping planes park at gates and handling luggage. With Christmas approaching and a massive winter storm in the forecast, the company indicated it needed all available employees.

“We have an obligation to our Customers and to our fellow Employees to safely and efficiently run our operation,” Johnson wrote.

The memo stated that employees “alleging illness” needed to provide a doctor’s note on the first day back to work that supported their reason for taking a sick day. Failure to do so could result in their being fired for abuse of sick leave and insubordination, Johnson wrote.

Holiday air travel this year is worse than in years past

He wrote that the company would deny requests for personal days off during the state of emergency. Employees would be required to work overtime, if needed. Johnson said the operational emergency would remain in place until he lifted it.

Southwest officials have said the airline was not short-staffed before the storm pounded much of the country, citing instead the inability of internal logistics and scheduling systems to recover from the storm.

In an email, the company said such operational emergencies are routine and contractually agreed to by employees and union representatives. The company said the state of emergency was enacted only at Denver International Airport.

Robert Mann, who runs R.W. Mann & Co., an airline industry analysis and consulting firm, described the memo as draconian and said it may have had the opposite effect to what Southwest desired and could have prompted some workers to stay home, knowing they would be facing freezing conditions at the airport.

“When it goes bad, it tends to go bad real quickly,” said Mann, a former airline executive.

Randy Barnes, president of TWU Local 555, the union that represents Southwest ground workers, said ground workers have been working 16-to-18-hour days during the holiday season. He said many have gotten sick and some have experienced frostbite.

Union representatives and analysts said the winter storm, which affected about 60 percent of the country and was blamed for the deaths of dozens of people, exposed the company’s technological deficiencies and brought into focus long-held contentions by unions and others that the carrier has delayed upgrades — relying on archaic ways to sync planes, pilots, staff, flight patterns, gates and runway availabilities.

The system works reliably to get planes, flight crews and travel patterns reorganized after smaller, centralized storms, but it can struggle to match the speed needed to develop a plan when many airports are affected. Last week’s storm packed such a punch over such a large swath of the country that it disrupted the entire aviation system — sending Southwest’s scheduling system, in particular, into a tailspin.

“The tools we use to recover from disruption serve us well, 99 percent of the time,” Southwest CEO Bob Jordan said in a video to customers and employees. He said the company is continuing to move forward with plans to upgrade the system.

Getting algorithms and other scheduling and logistical systems back in line can take days, said Lawrence Gasman, president of Inside Quantum Technology, which studies how quantum computing can help businesses with complex issues such as scheduling. As disruptions add up, a system that relies on synchronicity can reach the point of no return, he said.

Southwest officials said the only way the carrier could restore its regular flight schedule was to cancel most flights this week, aiming for a recovery before next week. That time is being used to reposition staff, planes and crew.

Southwest’s operations are unusual among the four carriers that dominate the U.S. market, relying more heavily on a point-to-point route model than a system of hubs and spokes. Such a system can leave crews and planes far from where they need to be when problems hit, slowing the recovery.

Chip Hancock, an Atlanta-based Southwest pilot and a union official, said his flights Monday were canceled but he was still required to show up at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where other pilots were waiting in an office. It took him an hour to get hold of a scheduler by phone, only to be told to check back in another hour.

Hancock said schedulers were telling crew members to make their own travel and sleeping arrangements, leading the airline to lose track of employees.

“You can see how you lose this positive control of the operation,” Hancock said.

Claire Taitte, a former Southwest manager who worked on crew scheduling and is now an aviation consultant, said that Southwest has invested in technology in recent years but that the scale of the challenge after cancellations mount is immense.

“The technology that would solve all of this very quickly simply does not exist to my knowledge,” Taitte said. “No airline has a magic irregular ops solver that solves everything quickly and notifies all the crews automatically and gets them all hotels automatically.”

Mann and others said the airline’s slow pace of technological change is part of the company’s ingrained culture. As Southwest grew rapidly from a small carrier to one of the nation’s largest, the carrier retained its well-worn solutions even as it expanded, putting familiarity ahead of the benefits new technology and upgrades could bring.

Mann said it took Southwest until 2017 to update its reservations system, something other airlines began doing in the late 1990s, even though it acquired the technology through the 2011 acquisition of AirTran Airways.

“That’s 20 years of sitting on your hands while the world moves on and the world gets bigger and more complicated,” he said.

Ross Aimer, chief executive of Aero Consulting Experts, which aids airlines with operational strategies and planning, said Southwest’s reluctance to adopt new technology also seems strategic.

For years, flight crews reported to company representatives the time they closed airplane doors and departed until the advent of the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), which automatically reported that data. Southwest, however, resisted the technology for years, giving it more leeway over arrival and departure performance records — which the Federal Aviation Administration reviews.

“Eventually they were forced by the FAA to put that device on an airplane,” said Aimer, a retired United Airlines pilot who flew commercial jets for more than 40 years. “But that just shows you the culture at Southwest.”

Aimer said he has heard reports from pilots and crew members who have spent hours trying to call in to a Southwest scheduler to report their locations and statuses.

The debacle will be a hit to Southwest’s finances. A smaller meltdown in October 2021 in which Southwest canceled more than 2,000 flights over four days cost the carrier $75 million.

The CEO of Southwest Airlines apologized to travelers on Dec. 27, following mass cancellations that left travelers stranded across the nation. (Video: Southwest Airlines via Storyful)

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said his department will investigate Southwest’s handling of the cancellations. He called for airlines to temporarily cap fares on routes affected by Southwest cancellations to limit the financial burden faced by stranded or delayed Southwest passengers who are trying to book flights with other carriers.

United Airlines said it was capping fares in cities that Southwest serves in the United States and Latin America through Saturday, and Frontier said it capped prices at “pre-disruption levels.” The Denver-based budget airline said it has sold “thousands of last minute tickets in recent days.”

Southwest draws regulatory scrutiny as thousands more flights canceled

“We are running almost completely full, accommodating as many passengers as possible,” the company said in an email.

Aimer said that while a confluence of factors was to blame, none loom larger than outdated technology that Southwest’s competitors targeted for investment years ago.

“All of these things became a perfect storm, and you see the meltdown that has happened,” he said. “And sadly, only to Southwest.”

Keith L. Alexander, Lori Aratani and Rachel Lerman contributed to this report.

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