Passengers across the country waited in airports this week while Southwest Airlines’ operation crumbled, because it couldn’t get pilots and flight attendants assigned to flights.
Meanwhile, the pilots and flight attendants sat in hotel rooms and airport break rooms waiting on hold in hopes of getting on a plane.
Some reported waiting on the phone for five to eight hours without an answer, union leaders said. Others went to sleep in hotel rooms with their phones next to them. When they woke up the next morning, they were still on hold.
“We had aircraft that were available, but the process of matching up those crew members with the aircraft could not be handled by our technology,” chief operating officer Andrew Watterson said in a memo to employees Monday. “In our desired state, we have a solver that would be able to do that very quickly and very accurately. Our system today cannot do that.”
After artic weather swept through the country last week and caused travel troubles for all airlines leading up to Christmas, Dallas-based Southwest Airlines is the only carrier still struggling as it faces a catastrophic meltdown. Two-thirds of its flights have been canceled in recent days. Company leaders and employee groups say outdated technology is to blame, particularly crew scheduling software that buckled under the weight of a moderate winter storm.
“The tools we use to recover from disruption serve us well 99% of the time, but clearly, we need to double down on our already existing plans to upgrade systems for these extreme circumstances so that we never again face what’s happening right now,” CEO Bob Jordan said in a video apology to customers Tuesday night.
Analysts and those inside the company say it’s no surprise that the company’s “archaic” software failed when demand was high during the holiday travel rush and weather-disrupted operations. As other airlines have sunk billions of dollars into upgrading technology for employees, passengers and operations, Southwest has resisted in favor of older methods that, in part, helped make it the most profitable airline in the country.
“It almost became a running joke around the company that we aren’t able to make certain changes because it would involve technology,” said Lyn Montgomery, president of the union representing the 16,000 flight attendants at Southwest, TWU Local 556.
Company executives are well aware of the need to upgrade technology systems as Southwest grows from the upstart carrier it was when it was founded 51 years ago into the country’s largest domestic carrier today with nearly 800 planes and more than 60,000 employees.
“I do think our growth outstripped the tools needed for the complexity,” Jordan said during a media day event in late November.
Old school solutions
At that media day in November, Jordan and Watterson talked about how the company made major technological steps forward to modernize the operation this year. The airlines’ “turn time,” or the amount of time it took to land a plane and get it back in the air again, had become bogged down by regulatory documentation requirements.
Baggage reports, weather reports and other reports were all being delivered to pilots and managers on paper for all 4,000 flights a day.
Delivering reports electronically, something most offices and airlines adopted years ago, would save valuable time and money, Jordan said.
Southwest has long been a technological Luddite in an industry obsessed with automation, apps and facial recognition. The company doesn’t assign seating and used plastic boarding position markers until 2002, when post-9/11 airport security changes forced the company to change.
The carrier also uses a point-to-point network instead of the “hub-and-spoke” model favored by other U.S. airlines of its size. Company officials have said that makes isolated events affect larger sections of the country.
In 2020, the FAA said Southwest should be fined $3.92 million for counting luggage on the tarmac and using average weight estimates to balance a plane’s cargo hold.
In its annual report last year, Southwest said it was “increasingly dependent on technology,” including systems that handled crew scheduling. But integrating new systems and technology is difficult, requiring a balancing act between the existing ones and new ones, it said.
“Modifications and refinements to [Southwest’s] systems have been and are expected to continue to be expensive to implement and can divert management’s attention from other matters,” the company wrote.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Southwest said it deferred “a significant number of technology projects” to save money, according to its 2020 annual report. But Southwest said it continued to invest “significantly” in technology in a number of areas, including “crew scheduling.”
When CEO Gary Kelly retired as CEO in February to be replaced by longtime company insider Bob Jordan, the new leadership said that technology would be a focus, along with cutting down on delays and cancellations.
In 2021, the company’s capital expenditure, including technology projects, was $505 million, compared with $515 million in 2020. In 2019, prior to the pandemic, it was $1 billion.
“[Southwest] continues to focus on the prioritization and execution of its technology investments and is in the process of continually executing an evolving multi-year plan for technology, with the goal of developing a stronger, more adaptable, and more efficient and reliable technology foundation to support Southwest’s strategic priorities,” the company said in its 2021 report.
In 2017, Southwest completed what it calls the “largest technology project in [Southwest’s] history” when it finished the deployment of a new reservation system called Amadeus Altéa Passenger Service System. It was designed to improve flight scheduling and manage flight disruptions from extreme weather conditions.
Southwest spent $500 million on the upgrade, which the company looked at as a major upgrade over the home-grown reservation system it had used for more than 30 years. With it, Southwest hoped to improve times for passenger check-in, boarding, baggage handling and seat inventory management.
There are no indications that the Amadeus system failed during the meltdown. The older system that handles crew and plane assignments was the one that failed.
Southwest includes its tech workers in a group called “management, technology, finance, marketing and clerical personnel.” The number of employees in the group dropped about 27% from 2018 to 2021. The company’s total number of full-time employees dropped about 6% over the same time period to about 55,100.
Perhaps the most important pieces of technology at an airline are in network operations and crew scheduling, which at Southwest is responsible for moving thousands of flights a day at more than 100 airports, including about 25,000 pilots and flight attendants.
Southwest uses internally built and maintained systems called SkySolver and Crew Web Access for pilots and flight attendants. They can sign on to those systems to pick flights and then make changes when flights are canceled or delayed or when there is an illness.
“Southwest has generated systems internally themselves instead of using more standard programs that others have used,” Montgomery said. “Some systems even look historic like they were designed on Windows 95.”
SkySolver and Crew Web Access are both available as mobile apps, but those systems often break down during even mild weather events, and employees end up making phone calls to Southwest’s crew scheduling help desk to find better routes. During periods of heavy operational trouble, the system gets bogged down with too much demand.
Southwest got a taste of this in 2021, as did other airlines, including American. During Father’s Day weekend that year, as travel demand began to rebound with the growing availability of COVID-19 vaccines, Southwest canceled about 1,250 flights over four days after a computer glitch initially sidelined the carrier.
Southwest saw a series of smaller crew scheduling problems over the summer before October 2021, when a storm in Florida combined with air traffic control and other congestion issues forced a major event.
What started with 147 cancellations on a Friday afternoon resulted in more than 2,500 nixed flights over the next three days. Airline officials said the initial batch of storms caused flight crews and planes to be caught out of position, so they were unable to fulfill assignments later in the day or the coming days. As the airline scrambled to pull pilots and flight attendants from other flights to fill immediate needs, later flights were disrupted.
Southwest wasn’t alone in the troubles as carriers such as Fort Worth-based American, Spirit, JetBlue, Alaska and Delta all faced periods of heavy cancellations in 2021 and early 2022.
But none of those events resulted in the collateral damage from 2022′s Winter Storm Elliott, which brought freezing temperatures and winds into key airports for Southwest in Denver and Chicago. U.S.-based carriers including Southwest, Delta, United, Alaska and American logged more than 8,000 cancellations on Dec. 22 and 23. But while others found solid footing by Christmas Eve, Southwest’s problems spiraled.
“Everywhere they were they had weather, and the worst of it is their systems are just not equipped to handle it,” said Cowen analyst Helane Becker during an interview with Bloomberg TV. “Historically, Southwest has under-invested in IT, in technology, and this has come back in the past to hurt them.”
Southwest averaged about 40 flight cancellations a day before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. But the airline has canceled more flights during the last two weeks than it did in any full year between 2013 and 2018. And larger cancellation numbers in 2019 and 2020 were due to the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max, which spread cancellations out over nine months, and the COVID-19 pandemic, when passenger demand dwindled anyway.
Since Dec. 21, Southwest has canceled more than 15,800 flights, according to Flightaware.com.
Casey Murray, who heads the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association union, said more than 1,000 pilots were left out of position on Christmas day, either at the wrong airport or away from home celebrating the holiday with family.
“Many of our processes are just screwed up,” Murray said. “It’s become just pride and avarice that they don’t make any changes.”
Crew members have complained that the crew scheduling software they use hasn’t dropped them from canceled flights. That can put them over their hour limit and prevent them from picking up new flights even though they are in the right place and able to fly.
Flight attendants and pilots said that when flights were canceled or diverted, the company didn’t have hotel rooms and transportation ready for them, even as thousands of passengers were trying to find accommodations themselves.
Murray and Montgomery said they would both like more automated options and methods other than phone calls to make schedule changes. That issue has become a focal point of contract negotiation campaigns, replacing the historically dominant trend of demanding better pay and benefits.
Jordan and Southwest management have acknowledged the troubles with the technology that led to this breakdown and told employees that “they’ll be hearing more about our specific plans to ensure the challenges that they’ve faced the past few days will not be part of our future.”
“At our size and scale, that’s just not okay,” Jordan said in November. “It’s not only inefficient; it’s hard on our employees. And so there’s a lot of work to do to catch the tools up to the complexity of the airline.”