Southwest Airlines Is Tempting Fate Over Another Christmas Meltdown

Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan is tempting fate over another Christmas meltdown promising on Thursday that “it will never happen again.”

At the end of last year, between Christmas and New Years, Southwest Airlines melted down – stranding around two million passengers and costing the airline around $1 billion dollars.

The long tail event began in Denver where a storm occurred, there wasn’t enough de-icing equipment, and there weren’t enough rampers – who all started calling in sick. But bad weather, that all the airlines were facing, cascaded and Southwest lost control of their operation.

There were too many inexperienced people and Southwest’s systems couldn’t keep track of so many flight attendants in the wrong cities and those systems couldn’t rebuild so many flights once planes and crew were out of position.

This is very, very unlikely to repeat for this year’s holidays. Southwest has made some new investments over the last year, but mostly the 2022 holidays were such a confluence of unlikely events paired together, at the same time, that it’s simply unlikely to reoccur this year.

The airline’s game plan to prevent another Christmas meltdown consists of:

  • Getting everything in order for first flight of the day. Delays stack, so make sure any maintenance issues are handled overnight.

  • Better tech and more de-icing equipment in Denver, Chicago Midway and Nashville and they’ve added supplies like heaters to help crew work in cold weather.

  • More training and reorganization of employees.

  • SkySolver rebuilds schedules but wasn’t up to the gargantuan task of rebuilding the entire schedule on the fly last year. So they rebuilt about 40% – 50% of their flying each day manually during the meltdown. They have better tools to track and reassign crew to flights now, too.

Ultimately too many things failed at once last year that they spiraled out of control. Southwest should be better positioned to recover this year – but they probably won’t be tested the way they were at Christmas 2022.

But Bob Jordan should really “go outside, turn around three times and spit” so that he doesn’t “tempt the wrath of the whatever from high atop the thing.”

And for passengers, no matter what airline you’re flying, it’s a good idea to consider buying a backup reservation on a different airline. In a world without change fees (excluding basic economy), book something for a few hours later on another carrier and cancel it once your preferred flight is underway. If you’re a frequent flyer, you wind up with a credit you’ll use later. Even better is booking the backup as a mileage award so that you can just cancel and redeposit the miles – with U.S. airlines now usually at no fee.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Good advice. Or just stay home 😉

    Happy Holidays!

    Any excess miles I have will go to Cathay Pacific First JFK HKG 🙂

  2. WN has spent a huge amount of money and a review of procedures to make sure what happened last year doesn’t happen again and it is absolutely possible to make the statement that was made.

    They have bought more deicing equipment and trained thousands of employees.

    They have upgraded software.

    And most importantly, they have repeatedly slowed the operation down before the bottom falls out multiple times over the past year and they will do it again.
    They simply barreled full speed ahead last year despite all kinds of warning signs and paid the price.

    Spirit is the airline that consistently is cancelling the most flights even before the holidays even though they have known for months that they would have many aircraft out of service for engine inspections and repairs. and B6 is still running the worst on-time; even if it is better than it was
    at the worst of the industry, B6′ on-time relative to the rest of the indsutry is still bad.

    WN’s operation has been very stable along w/ most of the US airline industry.

  3. A CEO has nothing to lose by making such a promise. If a repeat happens, he’s out the door whether he promised better or not.

  4. I like your advice but it can be dangerous if you book a flight you are not planning on taking as I had a situation where I couldn’t cancel the backup flight on time and had to call BUT the call center was so backed up I couldn’t get through to cancel.

  5. Thanks for advocating buying tickets as backup even though you hope to not need it. That really helps keep fares down and seats available for those of us who need to travel, often on short notice, during the holidays for work while you watch the snow fall with your family and friends

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