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Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune Editorial Board

Editorial: More stolen Christmases than the Grinch: Lessons from the great Southwest Airlines meltdown

The airline with the ticker LUV, now a far cry from its early customers-first days under co-founder Herb Kelleher, ruined countless holiday reunions over the past week. Southwest Airlines marooned not just passengers but also its own crews and landed tens of thousands of its customers in a Sisyphean holiday-week bog from which there seemed to be no escape to anywhere but the filthy bathroom or the knee-deep bar.

Canceled flights were rescheduled to other canceled flights. Pilots deadheaded to nowhere. Stressed-out travelers searched for overpriced planes, trains and automobiles. Even the airline’s shareholders got burned as the reputation-searing meltdown caused the company’s stock to fall, the market having deduced Southwest was about to lose much of its pricing power and brand affection.

Chicago was at the epicenter of this mess. Unless you’re going to Mexico or Canada or a couple of minor Allegiant frontiers, you’re almost certainly flying Southwest out of Midway, whose luggage-strewn floors looked more like a refugee camp this week. Allowing one massive airline to so monopolistically dominate a publicly owned airport, designed to serve the people of northern Illinois, looked like utter folly. No wonder local politicians started making statements.

Sure, there was a very bad storm. But any frequent flyer knows that airlines love to trot out the liability-shielding word “weather” when a more honest reason for a delay is a chronic staff shortage, as was clearly the case in Denver for Southwest; no backup plans; or, in this instance, problems with an archaic, off-the-shelf phone and crew-scheduling system that buckled under pressure even as every other airline quickly got back to normal.

Evidence mounted that Southwest, apparently still stuck in the 1990s, had ignored numerous calls to upgrade its technological support system even after it knew the danger of a meltdown. Rather, it focused on restoring its stock dividend and, reportedly, installing a pickleball court at its headquarters.

As with many businesses in crises, Southwest and its top executives were slow to heed the scale of the problem coming over the net this week: Airline delays on this scale aren’t just about missing family gatherings, although that is bad enough, or sitting on the floor for hours. They can be matters of life and death.

This is a public company and a crucial part of the nation’s transportation infrastructure that recently enjoyed billions of dollars in federal pandemic bailout funds. In our view, if the Southwest board is doing its job, overpaid heads at the world’s largest airline should now roll.

Not all of the reporting on this issue has been accurate. Southwest is not a low-cost airline anymore; its holiday week fares were eye-watering. Generally, it is just as costly to fly with Southwest as on the other majors, which clearly operate in a more efficiently zoned way, rather than hopscotching crews all over the map with breakneck turnarounds.

Incredibly, Southwest, now the nation’s largest airline, has been allowed to operate without so-called interline agreements and without any requirement whatsoever to put stranded passengers on other carriers’ flights. It needs one. Now. On fear of re-regulation.

Southwest is not the only offender here — internal memos have revealed that American Airlines won’t now routinely rebook delayed passengers on other flights unless they have “platinum” status or above — but it is far and away the worst.

Our Grinchy friends at The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board used this week of human misery to warn the federal Department of Transportation against interfering, apparently trusting Southwest to fix itself. We beg to differ, given the strategic importance of transportation, the oligarchical nature of today’s airline industry and the level of public funds just expended. You just can’t do this to innocent people.

In times of emergency, interline agreements and prompt rebookings must be required, and full refunds for canceled flights should be immediate and not require hours on the phone. And all of those people whose holidays were ruined deserve proactive additional compensation.

But here’s an idea the Journal might like. The draconian federal regulations that cover crew workdays might be worth moderating in an emergency.

Safety must be the first priority, of course. But that can be a more complex matrix than people realize: Is it safer for 160 stressed-out passengers to decide instead to drive through the snow — consider what happened in Buffalo, New York — rather than to allow a single flight attendant an extra hour or two of work so that a flight can take off?

Is it safer to keep a sick older person from medication for days than allow a pilot another 60 minutes to reach one hub destination? In many cases, it’s not so much more regulation that is required as smarter regulation, with the ability to adapt to weather and other emergencies. There also have to be financial incentives to not take people’s money and not deliver the goods in a timely way. The European Union put such regulations in place, and such stories in Europe are far less common.

Southwest, we hope, is now committing millions of dollars to upgrading its technology so it will never fail at this level ever again; it has promised as much. And it should be held accountable.

And the long-range planners at the city Department of Aviation might consider making room for a few more flights from competing, non-Southwest carriers at the Southwest Side gateway. Getting so much in bed with only one clearly problematic carrier can mean a lot of people lose their Christmas, their days off work and their all-important time with their family.

All due to outdated software that turns a storm into days of chaos? Please. Not exactly LUV’ing your customers or your employees, is it?

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