Southwest Operational Performance Still Lags Major U.S. Carriers as it Recovers from Holiday Meltdown

January 3, 2023


After a week of significant cancellations and delays for
Southwest Airlines—in which it reduced its flights to one-third of its normal
schedule, CEO Bob Jordan issued an apology, and the U.S. Department of
Transportation said it would investigate the airline's practices—the carrier on
Dec. 30 had returned to normal operations with usual disruptions for a
holiday weekend. 

Southwest on Friday canceled 43 flights, according to
flight tracker FlightAware, compared to more than 2,000 flights on Thursday. By
Monday, however, that number had crept back up to 205, representing 4 percent
of the carrier’s total flights. For comparison, among major U.S. carriers,
United canceled 55 flights on Monday, representing 2 percent of its schedule;
American cancelled 26 flights, just 1 percent of its schedule; Delta canceled
15 flights, less than 1 percent of scheduled flights on the tail end of a busy
holiday travel weekend. 

For affected Southwest passengers who had flights canceled
between Dec. 24 and Jan. 2, the carrier set up a webpage for customers to
submit refund and reimbursement requests for meals, hotel and alternate
transportation. On the same page, but via a separate form, customers can submit
information to reconnect to missing baggage.

Issues Beyond Weather

Although the holiday period is one during which there is
minimal business travel, Southwest Business VP Dave Harvey sent a letter to Southwest
Business customers offering an apology for the operational challenges and said Southwest
is "committed to making it right and ultimately winning your trust back"
after what U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg called the carrier’s
“operational meltdown.”

In addition to disruptions caused by extreme weather, there were
issues with getting crews to destinations to operate flights. TWU Local 556 VP
Corliss King, from the union that represents more than 19,000 Southwest flight
attendants, said outdated technology for handling schedule changes that
involves calling in confirmation or declination of certain changes compounded
the issue
.

"The challenge becomes if we have a phone system that
only allows 25 people on the scheduling team to operate the phones, but a
crisis requires 100 people, the system doesn't allow for something
catastrophic," King told BTN.

Some corporate travel managers openly criticized the
carrier on LinkedIn, calling out Southwest’s focus on cost containment and go-it-alone
strategies as a failure to evolve with the industry. 

Olympus Corporation executive director of procurement Pat Batra, who
oversees travel for the company, was one such critic. “For too long, Southwest
Airlines stayed away from interline agreements or upgrades in technology from
the 90s. This is not the first fiasco or the last!” he wrote on the social
media site. Other commentators blamed Southwest leadership for valuing margin
over investments in the future; still others blamed Wall Street for valuing
quarterly profits over long-term growth. 

DOT Oversight

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, who spoke
with Jordan last week and issued a letter to him outlining the Department of
Transportation’s expectations for passenger assistance, pointed out who is not
to blame: frontline employees, who have taken the brunt of the disruptions.  

"In the coming days, I expect that Southwest will have
repositioned its people and aircraft and be on track to resume normal
operations," Buttigieg wrote in his letter to Jordan. "I recognize
that Southwest's employees, from customer service agents to ground staff to
flight crews, are working extremely hard, under trying circumstances, to help
the airline return to normalcy. These frontline employees are not to blame for
mistakes at the leadership level."

Assistance expectations outlined by the agency included
getting stranded passengers to their desired destinations; providing meals,
hotels and ground transportation; refunding passengers; and reuniting customers
with their baggage. The carrier has said it would honor "reasonable
requests" for expense reimbursement stemming from flights that were
cancelled or significantly delayed between Dec. 24, 2022, and Jan. 2, 2023. Southwest
seems to be delivering on those expectations via its refund and assistance
website. 

Early reports from National Public Radio and others on the scene
at airports across the country have reported some quick ticket refunds from
Southwest but with some lagging progress on baggage and other issues that
resulted from the carrier cancelling more than 15,000 flights in total before
getting control of its operations. DOT has the ability to fine the airline if
it does not adequately address refunds, reimbursement and baggage claims.

File a claim for a disrupted SWA flight between Dec. 24 and Jan. 2.

_________________________

Elizabeth West contributed additional reporting to this story.



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