It’s been five months since Southwest Airlines experienced an unprecedented meltdown. They initially blamed weather, but they were cancelling over 60% of their flights a day even while other airlines throughout the country were operating normally. They found themselves short-staffed, and without the systems to recover. Their phone system broke. And they had to rebuild schedules manually, getting in touch with crews one at a time. And this went on for a week.
Millions of passengers were affected, and it cost the airline almost a billion dollars directly, loss of goodwill that almost certainly had forward-looking revenue implications, and the focused the need for significant new investment in people and technology.
Now the airline is headed into summer – peak travel – so observers both inside and outside the company are asking whether they’re ready. While December was a long tail event, recent years have taught us that rare events happen more often that you’d expect. Southwest has publicly outlined steps they’ve taken to prevent a repeat of December. Here’s what they’re telling employees. Southwest has:
- hired 5,700 new employees – and while they’re schedule is up 7% year-over-year, staffing is up 15%.
- evaluated staffing across airports and sent people to places that were understaffed.
- created a cross-functional working group of leaders to address seasonal issues (rather than focusing just on the day’s issues). They call the team SPF for Summer Preparedness Forum.
One of the problems Southwest faced was trying to contact staff one by one, and that’s still an issue. But they’ve…. adjusted the order that phone tree menu options are given, and given estimated wait times for crew to hold (so that they don’t hang up!). They’ve already made adjustments to their SkySolver system that wasn’t able to rebuild flight schedules at the scale needed in December. And they’ve set up better customer communications regarding baggage via email and text.
They’ve also adjusted schedules in Denver, where their operation began melting down in December. Summer runway construction means that they are adjusting connection schedules and crew connection times to account for delays there.
In 2021 and 2022 there were operational challenges at Southwest and other airlines around lack of staff. That shouldn’t be the issue at this point, although with nearly 20% turnover as of December the number of new staff present other challenges – a loss of context and experience in recovering when operations go south.
That’s a challenge other carriers face as well, indeed some of Delta’s challenges in achieving their past operational peaks may be the result of turnover including at the operational leadership level.
Given the long-term nature of the investments Southwest needs to make, I suspect that it’s going to take more than 5 months to prevent not just a similar meltdown to December but a meltdown in response to an entirely different and as-yet-unknown black swan event. But December certainly focused them, and they do appear to be taking steps to address risk areas. Meanwhile, we’ve seen IT meltdowns in the past at both Delta and United, and I wouldn’t hesitate at all to fly Southwest this summer (indeed, I’m booked to do so).