Southwest Woes Go Beyond Weather

 | 
December 28, 2022
UPDATED: 
December 28, 2022


Southwest Airlines' ongoing cancellations and delays this
past week even after other carriers recovered from the inclement weather over
the Christmas holiday indicate that the airline may have deeper systemic issues,
sources say. This means its operational woes could recur when there are more
business travelers in transit. 

In a video statement on its website posted Tuesday, CEO Bob
Jordan offered an apology to customers and employees, and explained that with
airplanes and flight crews "out of position in dozens of locations,"
the company will "significantly reduce our flying to catch up," and
"we're optimistic to be back on track before next week."

To that end, Southwest will operate only about one third of
its schedule for the "next several days," according to a carrier spokesperson
via email on Wednesday,

But weather is not the only issue. 

TWU Local 556, the union that represents more than 19,000
Southwest flight attendants, has vocalized concerns about the airline's system
for handling schedule and assignment changes. While attendants do get automated
alerts to changes, some confirmations need to be done by phone, the union's VP
Corliss King told BTN. 

For example, if the system thinks an attendant is in
Houston, but they are in Boise because they never made it to Houston, they have
to call in to let Southwest know they can't do that assignment, she said. Or if
a person has been on duty longer than the legal limit, or has not had the
minimum 10 hours of rest between shifts, they have to call that in.

"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 said. "It's a constraint we have been warning them about. This is not
the first time this has happened, and our union and other unions affected have
been asking for technology changes and quality of life improvements that would
let our members keep going when needed."

King said those calls for technology changes began as early
as 2016. "Every airline has weather, outages, problems," she said.
"But what I can tell you that is unique to Southwest is that our
technology is built for flying we don't do anymore. It was great when we were a
small, spunky airline, but now we're the largest domestic carrier and the
technology systems need to keep up with the growth, and they are not. … If you
can invest in your shareholders and packages for executives, then you can
invest first in your processes, your technology and your people, and let us do
what we do and take care of our passengers."

Jordan in his statement said, "The tools we use to
recover from disruption serve us well 99 percent of the time; but clearly, we
need to double down on our already existing plans to upgrade systems for these
extreme circumstances so that we never again face what's happening right
now."

The carrier's issues also have attracted attention from U.S.
Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, who has spoken with Jordan. "[Buttegieg]
conveyed that he expects the airline to live up to the
commitments
it has made to passengers, including providing meal vouchers,
refunds and hotel accommodations for those experiencing significant delays or
cancelations that came about as a result of Southwest's decisions and
actions," according to a DOT spokesperson. He also has met with union leaders
that represent Southwest flight attendants and pilots. 

Southwest did not address questions BTN asked about its
technology and scheduling systems, but a spokesperson did say the company has
created a specific site where customers can contact Southwest to rebook or
request a refund, and it's finalizing a resource to provide additional
assistance to customers with reuniting them with lost or missing baggage.
"For reimbursements, our Team will process as soon as they are able to,
given the volume," they said.

What additional courses of action Southwest takes to ensure a
meltdown of this proportion doesn't occur again remains to be seen, but King
said her union president, Lyn Montgomery, has asked to be there to help them
solve the problems, "and they are refusing."

Still, King is hopeful the issues will get resolved.

"Maybe this will help them realize we need
a seat at the table and can help them to make this right," she said.
"I believe they want to fix this, that is not in question. I believe in
our company. I believe in our people, I believe we'll get through this, but we
have to make some tough decisions at the top to put our people first. It is
important for our operation to incorporate a way for us to feed the information
they need from the front line when we see it starting to fail. That agility
would help us in the long run not compound the problem."



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  • Chuck Parsons

    Chuck is Score LA’s Executive Director of Events and Marketing. He aims to help business owners and would-be entrepreneurs in Los Angeles improve their business practices.

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