Far from a shock, Southwest meltdown was ‘perfect storm’ of well-known vulnerabilities
As chaos at Southwest Airlines brought misery to thousands of frustrated travelers and growing scrutiny from U.S. regulators and lawmakers, many in the aviation industry said the massive cancellation of flights by the nation’s largest domestic carrier was far from surprising.
Industry experts and union leaders for Southwest employees cited the company’s outdated technology and vulnerable operations, both of which are particularly susceptible to any disruptions, much less multiple coast-to-coast weather events.
“This was the perfect storm,” William McGee, a senior fellow focused on aviation for the American Economic Liberties Project. “Other [airlines] dealt with this and came back from this; Southwest was sort of brought to its knees. It deserves to be blamed for not being more resilient.”
Of the more than 3,000 flights canceled Tuesday across the U.S., about 85% were Southwest’s, according to the flight tracking website FlightAware. Thousands of the airline’s passengers were stranded in airports across the nation — not to mention its crew members. In California, hundreds of flights have been delayed or canceled through the end of the week — making up much of the Southwest schedule.
Airlines cancel more than 2,800 flights Tuesday morning, the majority of them with Southwest. At LAX, the cancellations and delays create misery.
Although the company acknowledged delays and cancellations and blamed most of the headaches on bad weather, leaders have offered little explanation or plans for relief.
“Our heartfelt apologies for this are just beginning,” the airline said in a statement. “We recognize falling short and sincerely apologize.”
Michael Santoro, vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Assn., said Southwest has failed to invest in an updated software system used for flight routing and staffing, which is crucial to avoid continual problems.
“The catalyst was the big storm,” Santoro said in an interview. “But our internal software can’t handle massive cancellations. The company hasn’t invested the money into scheduling infrastructure to support the network they have developed.
“So pilots are calling in asking, I’m done with this flight — where do I go next? Am I running another plane? Do I spend the night here? And pilots are on hold for hours trying to figure out what to do next.”
The cancellations are expected to continue. Southwest Chief Executive Bob Jordan told the Wall Street Journal the airline planned to operate at around one-third of regular capacity as it tries to regroup and get the schedule back on track.
“This is not hyperbole, I’ve never seen an airline meltdown of this size and magnitude,” said McGee, who has worked in and around U.S. airlines for almost four decades.
Although McGee and union leaders pointed directly to technology shortcomings for the unprecedented delays this week, experts said they could also be due in part to the way Southwest does business. The U.S. airline giant has no partnerships with other airlines to assist with rebookings, it operates with few open seats or backup crews and its unique flight patterns — running from destination to destination instead of in and out of certain hubs — leave little room for error, meaning delays can quickly spiral.
“They just keep domino-ing and cascading,” McGee said. “It will take weeks to try to just accommodate all the people who have been displaced.”
Southwest cancellations bring four strangers together.
Southwest’s flight patterns mean that “if one flight is canceled or delayed, it’s going to make a mess for everyone the whole day,” said Brian Sumers, editor of the Airline Observer newsletter. “It’s a complicated airline.”
Santoro said Southwest’s point-to-point network is “super-complex” but works well when there are no unforeseen storms. “It’s a great network,” he said. “It just needs to be supported correctly, and it hasn’t been.”
Michael Massoni, first vice president of Transport Workers Union Local 556, said the flight attendants union has complained about Southwest’s “antiquated technology” for a decade.
“When you have a weather event, airplanes get stuck and crews get stuck,” Massoni said. “But the software literally can’t keep up with where the airplanes are and where the flight attendants are.”
What ensues, he said, is “chaos,” and Southwest’s only option is to deal with the problem manually.
Airlines cancel more than 2,800 flights Tuesday morning, the majority of them with Southwest. At LAX, cancellations and delays cause misery.
Union officials agree with the company that the flight interruptions are not due to staffing issues, saying there were enough pilots and crews scheduled for the holidays.
With existing software, “the network spirals out of control,” Capt. Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Assn., said in a statement to members. “The company’s failed solution? Hire more. ... We aren’t undermanned. … Even with the correct number of pilots on any given day, the house of cards fails, and fail it does with ever-increasing frequency and severity.”
Many industry analysts said there’s still much to investigate about this breakdown.
“We just don’t know what’s really happened there to cause such an unprecedented cancellation pattern,” said Kathleen Bangs, spokesperson for FlightAware. “What was the system failure?”
The record for most U.S. flight cancellations in 2022 was set Feb. 3 — when a storm in the South and Midwest briefly closed Dallas Fort Worth International Airport — but that was surpassed Dec. 23, Bangs said.
In February, many flights were preemptively canceled to deal with the weather, but Southwest didn’t take that step this past week, she said.
“With it being the holidays, it’s really tough to preemptively cancel flights,” Bangs said. “It just really backfired.”
The chaos at Southwest prompted criticism from federal lawmakers as well.
Sens. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), members of the Senate Commerce Committee, said Southwest should not be able to claim flight cancellations were caused by recent winter storms, which would allow the airline to avoid reimbursing travelers.
Compensation should include not only rebooked flights, refunds, hotels, meals and transportation but also “significant monetary compensation for the disruption to their holiday plans,” the two senators said in a statement.
Southwest’s meltdown reached the Oval Office, with President Biden posting on Twitter that airlines would be held responsible and directing aggrieved travelers to the Department of Transportation website to determine whether they’re entitled to compensation.
“Our administration is working to ensure airlines are held accountable,” Biden tweeted Tuesday.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, said Tuesday that the committee will examine the causes of the disruptions and their effects on consumers.
“The problems at Southwest Airlines over the last several days go beyond weather,” Cantwell said in a statement. “Many airlines fail to adequately communicate with consumers during flight cancellations. Consumers deserve strong protections, including an updated consumer refund rule.”
Furious and weary travelers flooded Southwest on Twitter with reports of long lines that extended outside airport terminals, missing luggage that in some cases traveled onward despite canceled flights or piled up unclaimed for days. Southwest passengers were also forced to wait hours to reach consumer support representatives on the phone or were repeatedly getting disconnected, and struggled to navigate a glitchy website.
Passengers are blaming Southwest workers for the delays, Santoro said, which has become embarrassing.
The airline disrespected customers, bullied employees and tried to blame the wicked weather that blanketed the East and Midwest for a week’s worth of flight failures.
“We apologize and apologize,” Santoro said. “But it’s not our fault. We’re ready to work. We’re showing up. But we just need Southwest to put us on an airplane — tell us which airplane to fly.”
Times staff writers Alexandra E. Petri, Sarah Wire and Courtney Subramanian contributed to this report.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.