Far from being a shock, the Southwest meltdown was a “perfect storm” of known vulnerabilities

As the chaos at Southwest Airlines wreaked havoc on thousands of frustrated travelers and increased scrutiny from US regulators and lawmakers, many in the airline industry said the massive flight cancellations by the country’s largest domestic airline came as little surprise .

Industry experts and union leaders for Southwest workers cited the company’s outdated technology and fragile operations, both of which are particularly susceptible to disruption, let alone multiple coast-to-coast weather events.

“That was the perfect storm,” said William McGee, a senior fellow who focused on aviation for the American Economic Liberties Project. “Other [airlines] dealt with it and came back from it; Southwest was somehow brought to its knees. It deserves to be blamed for not being more resilient.”

Of the more than 3,000 flights canceled in the United States on Tuesday, Southwest accounted for about 85%, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware. Thousands of the airline’s passengers were stranded at airports across the country — not to mention their crew members. In California, hundreds of flights were delayed or canceled through the end of the week – making up much of the Southwest’s flight schedule.

The US Department of Transportation announced this week plans an investigation regarding the source of the airline’s massive problems.

Though the company acknowledged delays and cancellations, and blamed most of the headaches on bad weather, executives have offered little explanation or plans for relief.

“Our sincere apologies for this is just beginning,” the airline said in a statement. “We acknowledge that we fell short and sincerely apologize.”

Michael Santoro, vice president of Southwest Airlines Pilots Assn., said Southwest has failed to invest in an updated software system used for flight routes and staffing, which is critical to avoiding ongoing problems.

“The trigger was the big storm,” Santoro said in an interview. “But our internal software cannot handle massive cancellations. The company didn’t invest the money in planning infrastructure to support the network it was developing.

“So pilots call and ask, I’m done with this flight – where do I go next? Am I piloting another plane? Am I staying here? And pilots sit in queues for hours trying to figure out what to do next.”

Cancellations are expected to continue. Southwest Chief Executive Bob Jordan told The Wall Street Journal the airline plans to operate at about a third of its regular capacity to regroup and get the flight schedule back on track.

“That’s not an exaggeration, I’ve never seen an airline collapse of this size and magnitude,” said McGee, who has worked at and around US airlines for nearly four decades.

Though McGee and union leaders directly pointed to technological flaws for this week’s unprecedented delays, experts said they could also be due in part to the way Southwest does business. The US airline giant has no partnerships with other airlines to assist with rebookings, it operates with few vacancies or backup crews, and its unique flight patterns — flying destination-to-destination rather than to and from specific hubs — leave little room for Mistake. which means delays can spiral quickly.

“They just keep doing dominoes and cascading,” McGee said. “It will take weeks to try and house all the displaced people easily.”

Southwest’s flight patterns mean that “if a flight is canceled or delayed, it’s going to be a mess for everyone all 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 proper support, and it wasn’t.”

Michael Massoni, first vice president of Transport Workers Union Local 556, said the cabin crew union had complained about Southwest’s “outdated technology” for a decade.

“In a weather event, planes and crews get stuck,” Massoni said. “But the software literally can’t keep up with where the planes and the flight attendants are.”

What follows, he said, is “chaos” and Southwest’s only option is to resolve the issue manually.

Union officials agree with the company that the flight disruptions are not due to staffing issues as there are enough pilots and crew scheduled for the holidays.

With existing software, “the network gets out of control,” says Capt. Casey Murray, president of Southwest Airlines Pilots Assn., said in a statement to members. “The company’s failed solution? Hire more. … We are not understaffed. … Even with the right number of pilots on any given day, the house of cards fails, and with increasing frequency and severity.”

Many industry analysts said there is still a lot to explore in this breakdown.

“We just don’t know what really happened there to cause such an unprecedented cancellation pattern,” FlightAware spokeswoman Kathleen Bangs said. “What was the system error?”

The record for most US flight cancellations in 2022 was set on February 27. December — when a storm in the South and Midwest briefly shut Dallas Fort Worth International Airport — but that was topped. 23, Bang said.

In February, many flights were preemptively canceled because of the weather, but Southwest hasn’t taken that step in the past week, she said.

“With the holidays coming up, it’s really difficult to pre-emptively cancel flights,” Bangs said. “It just backfired.”

The chaos in the Southwest also drew criticism from federal lawmakers.

Sense. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), members of the Senate Commerce Committee, said Southwest should not be able to claim that flight cancellations were caused by the recent winter storms, which would allow the airline to avoid it of refunds to travelers.

The compensation should include not only rebooked flights, refunds, hotels, meals and transportation, but also “significant financial compensation for disrupting their vacation plans,” the two senators said in a statement.

The Southwest meltdown reached the Oval Office, with President Biden posting on Twitter that airlines would be held accountable and directing injured travelers to the Department of Transportation’s website to see if they were entitled to compensation.

“Our government is working to ensure airlines are held accountable,” Biden tweeted Tuesday.

Late. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, said Tuesday that the committee will study the causes of the disruptions and their impact on consumers.

“The issues at Southwest Airlines over the past few days go beyond the weather,” Cantwell said in a statement. “Many airlines fail to communicate adequately with consumers in the event of flight cancellations. Consumers deserve strong protections, including an updated consumer refund rule.”

Angry and tired travelers Southwest flooded on Twitter with reports from long lines which extended outside the airport terminals, missing baggage that in some cases traveled further despite canceled flights piled up unclaimed for days. Southwest passengers also had to wait for hours to phone or reach consumer protection representatives keeps disconnectingand struggled to navigate a faulty website.

Passengers blame Southwest workers for the delays, Santoro said, which has become embarrassing.

“We apologize and apologize,” Santoro said. “But it’s not our fault. We are ready to work. We show up. But we only need Southwest to get on a plane – tell us which plane to fly.”

Times contributors Alexandra E. Petri, Sarah Wire, and Courtney Subramanian contributed to this report.

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