Southwest Airlines Has Fallen Apart

Amy Qin, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, and Steve Lohr, reporting for The New York Times:

Thousands of travelers were stranded at U.S. airports on Monday as a wave of canceled flights — many of them operated by Southwest Airlines — spoiled holiday plans and kept families from returning home during one of the busiest and most stressful travel stretches of the year. The cancellations and delays one day after Christmas left people sleeping on airport floors, standing in hourslong customer service lines and waiting on tarmacs for hours on end.

The problems are likely to continue into Tuesday and later this week. As of Monday night, about 2,600 U.S. flights scheduled for Tuesday were already canceled, including 60 percent of all Southwest flights.

Bill Gurley, on Twitter:

The crazy thing about this is that throughout my lifetime, Southwest has been the VERY best airline when it comes to execution. Unquestionably. The leader. Which makes this all the more surprising. Interested to hear how it all happened. Sorry for all those stranded.

I too was surprised to see Southwest handling this so badly. For the last decade or so I’ve mostly flown American, because they have such a dominant position in Philadelphia and I’ve racked up a slew of points and status with them. But before that I flew on Southwest frequently, and was always impressed by their combination of low prices, great execution, and their outstanding, very friendly customer service. One time I missed a flight home to Philly from Chicago, and I expected it would be a hassle — and expensive — to get rebooked. Instead, I was on the phone for no more than five minutes, and they rebooked me on the very next MDW-PHL flight for no charge. I don’t think that would have happened with any other airline. Southwest also has, in my experience, the very best flight attendants in the industry.

From what I’ve gathered, Southwest’s problem this week is a combination of an outdated scheduling system and their generally high efficiency. They keep roughly 90 percent of their planes in service all day every day, but that means when something unexpected happens — like this past week’s weather across the country — the entire system is susceptible to falling apart. They now effectively need to “reboot”, and that might take an entire week. In normal times, Southwest is better than its competitors because they operate differently; now those differences have grounded most of their fleet. They cancelled a staggering 2,600 flights yesterday, 2,400 today, and 2,300 (and counting) for tomorrow. And keep in mind that part of Southwest’s efficiency is that their flights generally fly full — that adds up to over 300,000 stranded passengers per day this week. They expect only to be up to 1,500 flights by Friday — just one third of their usual schedule. Mind boggling chaos.

This is going to be a brutal reputational hit. It’s been a difficult week for all U.S. airlines, but only Southwest has completely fallen apart. Delays are one thing, but being stranded for days on end while other airlines are functioning is hard to forgive.

Tuesday, 27 December 2022