How Southwest Is Racing To Prevent Another Billion Dollar Holiday Travel Meltdown

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.

I’ve had several reporters ask lately, do I think Southwest is ready for the holidays this year?

  • Yes, they have made some new investments since last year.

  • But mostly last year was such a confluence of unlikely events paired together, at the same time, that it’s simply unlikely to reoccur this year.

Southwest for its part says they’re ready, and is outlining a ‘game plan’ for employees to prevent another Christmas meltdown.

  • They want to get everything in order for first flight of the day. American calls these ‘right start’ flights. But this is always true. Delays stack, so make sure any maintenance issues are handled overnight.

  • They’ve improved their tech (somewhat, this is an ongoing process) and they’ve added de-icing equipment in Denver, Chicago Midway and Nashville and they’ve added supplies like heaters to help crew work in cold weather.

  • They think they’ve addressed the issue of green employees through training and reorganization.

  • 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 it each day manually. They have better tools to track and reassign crew to flights now, too.

Here’s the memo:

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.

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. Even if they made no improvements, their customers have lowered the bar in terms of what to expect, so that should smooth over at least a few tempers.

    If Southwest actually came through with their promises to reimburse hotel and alternate travel expenses last year, then good on Southwest.

    I wasn’t flying Southwest over the holidays last year, but I was at a BevMo store in Danville, CA picking up a Gopuff order that I made (thanks to $10 monthly credits on Chase cards). Also in the store was a 50 something year old woman complaining that she was stranded in the area because of Southwest. Yeah, lady, complaining about being stranded in one of the most weather-temperate, lowest-crime, highly educated areas of the country? Stranded? JFC what a moron. On second thought, thank goodness she flies an airline I don’t fly!

  2. Reads like a placed story.

    Gary did Southwest or one of their reps place the story with you?

  3. An insightful exploration of Southwest’s proactive measures to avert potential holiday travel chaos. The article skillfully navigates through the airline’s strategies, shedding light on their race against time to ensure a seamless travel experience. A must-read for those interested in the intricate dynamics of the aviation industry during peak seasons.

  4. Excuse me, @Ex-UA Plat. Are you insinuating Gary has succumbed to the influence of corporate comms and public relations?

    Here are the facts. One, there is no indication in this post that it came from an official corporate source. The screenshot of the corporate memo suggests the opposite, that an employee forwarded this to Gary in a personal capacity.

    Two, while I have repeatedly posted on this blog that Gary is unintelligent due to his undergrad-only grasp of Economics, the fact is that he has a tough skin due to growing up in NY and South Florida, probably the top two places in the country where you either grow a tough skin or be run over like a doormat. So Gary is not going to be swayed by corporate Comms/PR people who are often very stupid themselves, as their undergrad degrees were not even in Economics!

    I think this is a legitimate story whether or not Southwest corporate comms had a hand in it. It’s for sure more valuable content for this blog than random stories about offensive passenger antics.

  5. What they haven’t fixed is when a plane is out of position it is not available to complete any downline sectors. Unless they position spares throughout their system I bet there is reasonable chance they suffer the same type of meltdown again. #pointtopoint

  6. Jason,
    Southwest has been able to overfly stations when there are problems at a particular airport and that has not changed. The problem is that WN essentially operates a hybrid point to point and hub system so people can wait for a delay on a point to point segment but when that plane and crew continues to a hub, all of those passengers risk their connections – but that part is also true for a hub and spoke carrier on a delayed segment.

    I don’t agree that WN is just running on luck. They were woefully naive about the environments in which they operate esp. DEN and MDW – which regularly get winter weather – but they also keep mentioning BNA which is often right on on the line of winter weather but so is Dallas. WN just didn’t have enough of the right winter equipment in the right place and were short staffed – like a lot of airlines last year – but they can fix the equipment problem and also schedule to or cancel down to their level of staffing. They tried to barrel through bad weather with not enough equipment and staffing shortages. And they lost control which other airlines have done when too many cancellations overwhelm crew tracking and aircraft routing systems.

    I think they will get it under control this year.

    In the 2nd half of the year so far, nearly all US airlines are running very reliably.

  7. Observations:
    – If you read the memo, it’s got a half dozen “senior” vice presidents listed. Appears no “one” particular person was in charge when it hit the fan; too much hand holding. First thing I learned in business, “Lead, Follow, but get out of the way!!!” Pick the in-charge person during the storm. Someone had to make the hard decisions. Software is not the answer for all evils.
    – New and better equipment is fine; new, new and improved software is great; and new procedures (1st flight of the day on time) are wonderful. However, need to sell the message to the employees who keep the ship running. Not easy when getting multiple directions from multiple sources. The message needs to be concise, focused, and from one person.
    – In future winter schedules, may want to adopt the Euro format for ULCC. They assign a batch a jets to one base. They have multiple legs in and out, but that batch of jets returns to the same base at the end of the day. Should that base be snowed in, the rest of the bases continue with minimal disruption. In the Southwest 2022 Meltdown, jets were flying point to point and getting snagged when one of the airports was snowed in. Read your Farmer’s Almanac, if it’s a bad winter cycle, pick the airport(s) with the worst weather (DEN, MDW) . Try setting up a base with assigned jets at that location. If Denver is sopped in, the rest of the system still thrives. Frontier is currently reviewing such a methodology.

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