Why The Southwest Airlines Carnage Happened, And What The Airline Will Pay For

Southwest Airlines has faced an operational disaster of unprecedented proportions, cancelling over 60% of its flights every day and continuing to do so. They are likely displacing a quarter million passengers per day and doing so for about a week.

People missed their holidays with loved ones. They’ve faced enormous stress. Certainly some of these holiday gatherings would have been the very last one families would have had all together. Some reunions were last shots at saving a marriage, or would have been opportunities to rekindle a connection – so there are marriages, and families, that don’t happen because Southwest kept people apart.

Airlines like to talk about the important role they play in connecting people, but when they don’t operate and don’t offer a way for passengers to get where they’re going, those connections don’t happen. It’s one thing to talk about costs and expenses. There’s a real human cost, too.

Still, it’s easier to visualize the carnage in long lines, 15 hour phone hold times, and mounting piles of baggage.

Southwest Promises To Help Cover Your Costs

Southwest is now saying they’ll honor reasonable requests for reimbursement of expenses that passengers have incurred due to the airline’s troubles including “meals, hotel, and alternate transportation.” Of course it is not clear in advance what Southwest will consider reasonable?

  • Purchasing the only seat available on United, at full fare?
  • Five nights of hotel waiting for a re-scheduled Southwest flight? Plus full meals for 3 days, perhaps at GSA per diem rates?
  • Additional days of pet-sitting expense, until you can get home?
  • Replacement items, such as clothing and toiletries, from missing luggage

When adding up actual expenses customers are incurring, through several days of delay, we could be talking about more than a billion dollars in reimbursement expense alone, leaving aside all of the other costs to the airline from this disruption. Of course you have to expect that most people won’t claim expenses, or full expenses, or keep receipts, or go through the gauntlet to appeal any initial disapprovals of expenses. DOT will have lots of consumer complaints to sort through for sure.

Southwest’s CEO Finally Speaks

After days of cancellations, Southwest’s CEO finally appears. He apologizes to employees (necessary) but doesn’t really show empathy for customers. He blames weather. Joe Brancatelli compared it to a hostage video.

So What Happened Here?

Southwest didn’t have enough employees when their operation began to unravel due to weather. They didn’t have enough reserve crews. They didn’t have enough ground staff, as people were calling out sick not just in elevated holiday and winter numbers but because of all of the different viruses circulating. And systems just broke down, too, even the airline’s phone system.

Word of Southwest’s meltdown began with weather in Denver where they had no one to work the ramp and were threatening termination for sick calls without a doctor’s note (and disallowing telemedicine visits). The harsh tone of the letter seemed like it might have been a rogue vice president – but there was a similar note to rampers in Baltimore (minus the diss of telemedicine).

They didn’t have the technology in place to recover – to properly track and re-assign crews, to get in touch with crew, to figure out the very state of their operation. They’ve been investing in improving IT for years, moving beyond the provincial carrier they were in their roots, but it’s been a long and slow process at the airline.

I think we finally have some explanation for why Southwest continues to cancel so many of its flights throughout the week, via aviation watchdog JonNYC. They’re assigning crew to planes manually.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. This will easily cost LUV a half billion dollars in lost revenue and increased labor costs plus passenger compensation claims that will drag on well into 2023.
    Because LUV will hand out hundreds of billions in passenger vouchers, their actual revenue in 2023 will be reduced as customers use those vouchers- and yes people will come back to LUV with heavy discounting.
    The real question is how much LUV changes and reduces its schedule until it has the systems in place to maintain operational control.
    And LUV still has to sign new labor contracts with most of its unionized labor groups which will send their expenses even higher.

    This event will handicap LUV for years.

  2. Sw ruined our Christmas with son & granddaughter. He was to fly to LV from San Diego(perfect wx), cx’d at airport.Went home, got car&drove to LV, had to pick bags up at airport in LV.12/26 flt moved to standby, then cx’d & were only flying to RNO. No wx problems. My husband drove 3 1/2 hrs to pick them up in RNO but flt cx’d. Incompetence running the show at SW. Cost me 99.00 to ship gifts yesterday. Many people had it much worse but I am very disappointed.

  3. David, right on. Probably BIGGER year end bonuses from all the money saved by having too FEW (less costly) employees and antiquated (less costly) IT. The additional costs paid to pax for compensation/vouchers will be in a different accounting column (not affecting CEO bonus calculation) to be written off as tax deductible so they’ll pay ZERO taxes. American greed and capitalism at it’s finest, make that worst.

  4. I had a scary Southwest experience with my toddler son over ten years ago, and haven’t taken them seriously since. They work well when things are going well. IROPs not so much.

  5. Congress is gonna get really pissed. [redacted-gl] will send a sternly worded email. DOT will fine Southwest $1 billion (!) . Congress will give Southwest $5 billion to “ build back better.”

    This is your leadership.

  6. This’ll devalue my companion pass if reductions in service happen until they can improve their systems. Affecting loyalty, especially since their prices now mirror legacy carriers, will be very damaging to them

  7. My prediction: Southwest will hire a good PR firm, apologize a lot, and pay some claims for the people willing to spend hours filing them. DOT will make a few noises and do nothing. By summer travel season, most of the public will forget all about this and Southwest will have no trouble cramming people into the new 737 Max fleet. The public wants cheap seats. Southwest, Frontier, and Spirit will continue to give the public what it wants. Good and hard. People who read this blog may pay attention to interline agreements, buy trip insurance, make backup reservations, and avoid flying during peak holidays when possible. Life will go on and Southwest management will not sweat the “noise around the edges.”

  8. Southwest Airlines will petition the US Government for bailout money to cover losses and cover stock buybacks and executive bonuses cause it’s what airlines do

  9. What really went wrong was a long time disaster simmering waiting to finally boil over. Years of low balling other air line rates has caught up to them. Remember disasters are not single cause events. It takes a multiple of influences to cause a catastrophic event. The weather related event was just a catalyst that broke the camels back but certainly not the sole cause. Weather Southwest is using the weather event has their heavy the underlying issue may rear its ugly head. Southwest had too many low ball air fares that customers paid, many ahead of time to get ahead of inflation curves. These I’m sure became too big of a liability to Southwest underline and the real reason for so many cancelations.

  10. What should happen:. SW Board of directors and c suite removed through shareholder revolt, buttigieg does his job and advocates for customers stranded and SW reimburses for damages in cash, not vouchers.

    What will happen:. Buttigieg remains on permanent vacation, big shareholders will protect their friends on the SW Board and c suite, and travelers will get 15 cents on the dollar for damages.

    SW is now as bad as American. Just another crappy airline with incompetent but handsomely reimbursed execs

  11. I continue to be amused by people who are shocked when the low-cost airline ticket they bought melts down. Come on, wake up. It’s cheap for a reason. I’ll gladly pay a few dollars more for a better-run airline, an actual seat assignment, and fellow passengers who aren’t rude or obnoxious. Has been many years since I flew WN, and our family decided we wouldn’t make that mistake again.

  12. Many corporate and government travel policies require employees to use the most cost-effective carrier that fits schedule requirements, Spirit and Frontier excluded. Southwest should be thrown in that ultra low cost bucket due to reliability (or lack of). Most cost-effective takes into account added time for connections vs nonstop, layover time, etc. Southwest is not cost-effective if corporations and government agencies need pay for added hotel nights, meals, alternative air and/or ground transportation, forced overtime or comp time for employees entitled to it while in official travel, because Southwest cannot get people where they are scheduled to be within a reasonable amount of time while other airlines can.

  13. LOL – first world problems.
    “I can’t believe I couldn’t fly myself to my ski cabin in aspen for the holidays! How dare they ruin my 3 weeks off of getting paid not to work!!”

    “The government will save us and punish those big corporations who donate millions to their political party of choice!! – HA!

    America is now a dog eat dog society. No one is here to help – only to serve their best interests – not police, not government, not even public health officials or teachers at this point. Get what you can and get out.

  14. I agree with Texan@heart. People have short memories. Certainly, some will cross SWA off the list permanently. But, others are rah-rah fans of SWA . . . like there are rah-rah fans of any product or service. They will ignore the warts and remain loyal. Think about it . . . how many people say they hate Marriott and in the next sentence brag that they’ve renewed Platinum status? In the end, it will be the revenue needle that tells us what people have actually decided about SWA.

  15. Why do persist in assuming Southwest has lower fares than the legacy airlines? In my experience their flights were higher and had connections. Maybe it is just due to being based out of SEA but they just do not work well for me and never have.

  16. WN ruined our Xmas, too! Flt to LOL dxed then pxed then cxed; had to rx and then tx to FML, but luggage lxed in SMH. Don’t think it was wx!

  17. @Don – you’re pretty close to describing me a bit. Southwest did help me get our family of 5 to Beaver Creek for our ski trip (12/17-23). Only delayed 3 hours on return trip,

    as far as your ‘best interests’ comment, I bought 5 options contracts and on LUV yesterday, hoping they’ll have this behind them in 90 days. The stock price isn’t decreasing nearly as much as you’d expect from all this news. It’s not even at its 52 week low at this point.

  18. The situation is ridiculous from Southwest and its management, but I love Gary overdramatizing it. Oh, the marriages and families that will never happen now! Hahahaha
    The story would have been better without the clown editorial.

  19. I used to be a crew tracker for two major airlines, and I have an appreciation for what is happening at SW and why. Things are set up for routine operations, with minor adjustments here and there for crew issues such as a crew misconnecting or someone calling off sick, a canceled flight, or several canceled flights. When we had major disruptions such as 9/11, ect it was a huge challenge to keep the operation under control. But the problem in this case is SW had a massive flight operations intruption that went on for a few days, and they got behind. The system they use likely has been updated for years, and those systems are amazingly complicated. When I worked at TWA, we had an antiquated system, but it was reliable and we had processes and procedures so that we didn’t need to talk to crews. We just made our adjustments, sent out messages to local operations and moved on.

    I have no doubt that SW will do a post incident review and make a major investment into technology as well as review processes and procedures. This is obviously a major breakdown on the system operations control level that they did not anticipate and have never experienced before. Now they just need to get the operation under control. The fact that they are basicly canceling 2/3 of their schedule through the end of the year, is rather concerning, but understandable. That reduces the workload of the scheduling dept to a manageable level. But it is going to cost SW a whole lot of money for sure, and likely there will be lawsuits and more for years after this.

  20. I was lucky.  Up in the Denver area for Christmas and flew in through COS. Had a rental car.  After the return flight to PHX was cxld Monday afternoon quickly realized that if I returned the car I might be giving up my only chance to drive home. 

    Went back to Springs but also had made a separate car rental reservation – one way from COS to PHX.  The person at the car counter was able to honor it with the current car we still had.  Also able to help us with a low one-way drop fee.  They and every other car rental company had no cars at all – none – and did not foresee any for days.  Any reservations made within the past 24 hours were not being honored.  If we had given up that car we’d still be up there in Denver until Friday, Saturday or Sunday. 

    So really feel blessed how it worked out for us. But along the way have seen my relationship with WN ruptured. This isn’t the first time they’ve dropped the ball in my recent experiences with them. I am A-List and fly 30 – 35 flight segments each year. No shortage of BS fares and I book others on WN.  Not a big fish but there are plenty like myself.

    In 2023 I’ll still fly Southwest burning through points and using my CP.  But then, going forward, I will look at all airlines and pick and choose based on what’s best for each situation.  I will join other programs.  I have not flown any other domestic airline for 25 years excepting travel to Green Bay.

    Clearly the airline has been focusing on the wrong things. For myself, it has now become irritating to see their “make the world a better place” ballyhooing when they can’t even deliver the basics and instead cause a tremendous amount of people a great deal of suffering. 

    Is it too late for WN to return to what it once was?  They’ve absolutely blown through a mountain of their customers’ goodwill and wasted it all.  I don’t trust the airline anymore. And I don’t trust the current management to do the right things. Not at all. People (both employees and customers) used to be put first and then profits followed.  I doubt they will return to that.  Give lip service to it? Yes.  But actually orient the business around that?  No.   

    I feel sorry for the good employees still there (and there are many).  And especially for everyone else stranded who was not as fortunate as I was to get to where they needed to be going.

    .

  21. There is absolutely nothing to suggest that Sec. Buttigieg will ‘do nothing’.
    Both DOT and Congress have already indicated investigations will roll. DOT and the Secretary have been pushing out responses and advocating for the impacted public, and shaming the other majors into capping urgently needed flight fares.
    If anything, the 2023 US House leadership (whoever emerges from that clown fight) will be the blockage to new airline & passenger rights legislation, as I think it’s pretty obvious the next party ‘in charge’s has shown almost no appetite to pass any laws for a couple of years now.

  22. I had flown WN only once before and all went well. So, I looked into what they had to offer to fly me to CLE from PHX, RT. Their schedule and fare suited me and I decided to buy a ticket. Twenty five years ago when my grandson was born my prayer was to live long enough to attend his wedding. Thanks to WN only 50% of my prayer has been realized. My beloved grandson’s wedding on Dec. 30th will occur w/o me. ALL of the family will be there except me. Thx for nothing, WN. I am broken hearted.

  23. WN free bags but the pax just does not get them as they are lost in la la land . This is what happens when an airline does not itnerlink . Thank god they have a lounge , oh no they dont. And if you can find your black bag in a sea of black bags goood luck.

    This is why i have NEVER EVER been on Southwest airlines.

    WN – is the airline code for Southwest also means WereNuts

  24. We wrote off SW 15 years ago when our 2 year old was forced to sit alone on a 3 hour flight and the SW staff said “open seating tough luck”

    Glad we’ve never been back.

  25. @Marco Jones: That never causes a problem to anyone (except you). You pay for an upgrade to board earlier. I am amazed that, as a parent, this wasn’t important enough for you to do it. All the other parents did.

    Since I don’t have kids I always stay in the cheap seats at the back. You bought and got the same treatment as me.

    However, nobody here doubts that you are a good person. A very good person.

  26. @RalfW—agree with you. Thanks for being the calm and clear voice in this discussion.

    @Rjb—homophobic much? I’ve got to call out the bigots when I see them.

  27. Congressional investigations and DOT inquiries and talks are just a delay tactic to avoid consumer-friendly legislation/regulation advancing of the sort that the US needs: the US equivalent of the EC 261/2004 regulation applicable to flights from Europe, flights operated by European airlines, and when flying under a European codeshare.

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