Five days after severe winter weather wreaked havoc on holiday air travel across america, most major carriers are back up and running. Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and United Airlines each canceled fewer than 40 flights on Wednesday, in line with FlightAware, a flight tracking service. Delta had the fewest with only 15 cancellations.
At Southwest, it was a really different story.
Greater than 2,500 flights, or 62 percent of its planned flights on Wednesday, had been canceled, in line with FlightAware. And Southwest said in an announcement on Wednesday that it planned to fly one third of its scheduled flights for the following several days because it tries to return to normal operations, meaning it might proceed to cancel near 2,500 flights a day. Some passengers, unable to rebook Southwest flights, rented cars or spent a whole lot of dollars to purchase tickets on other airlines.
So what caused the meltdown?
The “point-to-point” model failed
Southwest uses a “point-to-point” route model that usually lets passengers fly directly from smaller cities and regions without having to stop at a central hub like Denver or Latest York. Point-to-point flights cut travel times by eliminating the intermediate stop — typically a giant advantage for travelers who will not be flying from major metro areas.
Other large carriers like United and American depend on a “hub-and-spoke” model by which planes typically fly from smaller cities to a hub airport where passengers change planes.
For instance, a passenger flying on a United plane from Oklahoma City to Phoenix could have to stop in Denver for several hours. Southwest flies routes directly from Oklahoma City to Phoenix in lower than three hours.
With a hub system, there’s a ready pool of crew members and pilots who can report back to work at a significant airport, said Mike Arnot, an industry analyst. That makes it easier to regroup after a storm, he said. Planes are also kept closer to their home airports, reasonably than being spread across the country.
It’s harder to have a reserve of standby crew members and pilots when airlines serve many smaller markets. There will not be often excess crew in places like Syracuse, N.Y., Mr. Arnot said.
Consequently, Southwest’s cancellations created a large snowball effect that rippled across its fastidiously choreographed network, leaving planes and crews scattered across the country, he and other analysts said.
“The one option to reset is to get the planes and crew back to where they must be,” Mr. Arnot said. “And the one option to do this is to cancel an enormous amount of flights.”
Because Southwest is the biggest airline in 23 of the highest 25 travel markets in america, when the severe weather led to many canceled flights, it resulted in airplanes and crew members being out of position in dozens of cities, he said.
The airline, he said, was “focused on safely getting all of the tpieces back into position to finish this rolling struggle.”
Tech problems also hurt
Airline scheduling is a “very intricate system” that must consider union rules, federal regulations and airline policies when assigning crews and pilots to flights, said Kathleen Bangs, a former business airline pilot and spokeswoman for FlightAware.
Southwest’s system, nevertheless, couldn’t keep track of where its crew members and pilots were after so many flights were canceled, Mr. Arnot said.
Pilots and crew members on the lookout for their next project waited hours — nine hours in a single case — to talk to staff members at Southwest’s overwhelmed operations center, said Casey A. Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, the union that represents the just about 10,000 Southwest pilots. With nowhere to go, a whole lot of pilots and crew members slept in airports next to passengers and luggage, he said.
“Once one card falls, the entire house falls here at Southwest,” he said. “That’s our problem. We couldn’t sustain with the cascading events.”
Mr. Murray said the union had been urging the airline for years to update “I.T. and infrastructure from the Nineties.”
“We’re seeing these meltdowns occur with more severity and more frequency and this past weekend was the exclamation point,” he said. The airline also suffered a technology meltdown in June 2021 that resulted in a day when half of its flights were delayed and plenty of were canceled; it took days before the situation might be resolved. In October of that 12 months, it had similar issues and canceled greater than 1,800 flights over one weekend.
Even before this week’s problems, Mr. Jordan, Southwest’s chief executive, had acknowledged that the scheduling system was outdated.
“We’re behind,” Mr. Jordan said in November, in line with Fortune. “As we’ve grown, we’ve outrun our tools.”
For instance, Southwest doesn’t have a fast, automated option to contact crew members who get reassigned, he said. “Someone must call them or chase them down within the airport and tell them,” he said.
Customers were left with few options
Unlike other major carriers, Southwest doesn’t have agreements with other airlines that allow passengers to fly on competitors’ planes when there’s a cancellation or significant delay. “Most low-cost carriers don’t have these agreements in place,” Mr. Arnot said, largely because those agreements are expensive.
“In case your flight is canceled, you might be compensated,” he said of Southwest passengers. Or passengers are rebooked on the following available flight with the identical airline.
For hundreds of Southwest passengers in the previous couple of days that was not a viable alternative.
Katie McNamara, an art director from Brooklyn, visited family in Mississippi for the vacation along with her husband, Justin, and their two children, who’re 8 and a pair of.
They were scheduled to fly back on Wednesday from Latest Orleans but when their flight was canceled, they may find no other flights on Southwest’s website until at the least Jan. 31.
They paid $1,500 for 4 one-way tickets to Latest York on JetBlue on Friday. Ms. McNamara said she hoped Southwest will cover the additional cost but was waiting to call customer support. (The airline directed customers to an internet site to rebook flights or request refunds.)
“I doubt they’re answering their phones in the intervening time,” she said.
Southwest said that “requests for reasonable reimbursements directly related to the travel disruption” can be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
Ms. McNamara, 37, who has used Southwest for years for direct flights to go to family in Texas, Latest Mexico and Mississippi, said the present fiasco won’t keep her from booking with the airline again.