A blast of severe winter weather last week caused thousands of Southwest Airlines flight cancellations and led to a complete collapse of the flight system. In the days since, the airline’s quest to recover has been slow and, some passengers argue, largely unsuccessful. But experts say the chaos in the Southwest is actually the culmination of problems that have been building up over several years.
Since Dec. Feb. 22, the ailing airline has canceled more than half of its typical flight schedule, and as of late Wednesday, about 87% of all canceled flights in the U.S. came from the Southwest alone, according to industry trackers FlightRadar24 and FlightAware.
The dire situation that has upset passengers and caught the eye by state regulators, intensified this week as other major airlines recovered from the extreme cold, ice and snow that gripped much of the United States over the holiday weekend.
The company has apologized to its passengers and employees for the daily cancellations and reduced its capacity by about two-thirds, according to a CNN review of flight data on Thursday.
This week’s meltdown isn’t the first time the company has found itself in this predicament. In October 2021, Southwest canceled more than 2,000 flights over a four-day period. While the airline partially blamed the crisis on poor Florida weather, Southwest canceled flights for much longer than its competitors.
But much of the chaos in the Southwest may be the result of long-term problems unrelated to the weather.
Above all, these include outdated internal processes and information technologies. Southwest’s scheduling system hasn’t changed much since the 1990s, according to Captain Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association.
Southwest has also acknowledged the company’s aging infrastructure. “We’ve talked a great deal about modernizing operations and the need to do so,” CEO Bob Jordan told employees in a memo obtained by CNN.
Over the years, the airline’s cancellation rate has increased, tripling from 2013 to September 2022, the latest available data from the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics, which tracks airline performance, and well ahead of the most recent crisis.
The bureau only released data for 2022 through September. To ensure a fair comparison, in previous years CNN only analyzed the airline’s data from January to September.
Airline cancellation rates fluctuate from year to year, depending on the weather and other factors such as: B. Covid-19, which caused a major industry-wide disruption in the early months of the pandemic in 2020.
But Southwest has consistently not fared as well as its peers on cancellations, according to the bureau.
The data shows that the airline has had higher cancellation rates compared to other major airlines in several years over the past decade.
It’s not just cancellations. Southwest has also seen its on-time performance percentage drop to its lowest level in a decade in recent years. As of September 2022, well before the airline’s current troubles, only about 7 out of 10 of its flights have arrived on time.