Five days after severe winter weather ruined holiday air travel in the United States, most major carriers are back in business. Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and United Airlines canceled fewer than 40 flights on Wednesday, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking service. Delta had the least, with only 15 cancellations.
It was a very different story in the Southwest.
More than 2,500 flights, or 62 percent of their scheduled flights on Wednesday, were canceled, according to FlightAware. And Southwest said on Wednesday it plans to fly a third of its scheduled flights over the next few days as it tries to return to normal operations, meaning it will continue to cancel close to 2,500 flights a day. Unable to rebook Southwest flights, some passengers rented cars or spent hundreds of dollars buying tickets from other airlines.
So what caused the meltdown?
“Point to point” model failed
Southwest often uses a “point-to-point” route model that allows passengers to fly directly from smaller cities and regions without having to stop at a central hub like Denver or New York. Point-to-point flights reduce travel times by eliminating intermediate stops; this is a huge advantage for passengers who don’t usually fly from major metropolitan areas.
Other major airlines, such as United and American, rely on a “central and hub” model, where planes typically fly from smaller cities to a central airport where passengers change planes.
For example, a passenger flying on a United flight from Oklahoma City to Phoenix may have to stop in Denver for several hours. Southwest flies directly from Oklahoma City to Phoenix in less than three hours.
Mike Arnot, an industry analyst, said that with a hub system, there is a ready pool of crew members and pilots who can report to work at a major airport. That makes it easier to regroup after a storm, he said. Planes are also kept closer to main airports rather than spread out across the country.
Having a reserve of crew members and pilots is more difficult when airlines serve many small markets. Mr Arnot said places like Syracuse, NY usually don’t have much crew.
As a result, Southwest’s cancellations created a giant snowball ripple through its carefully crafted network, leaving it and other analysts with planes and crew scattered across the country.
“The only way to reset it is to get the planes and crews back to where they need to be,” said Mr Arnot. “And the only way to do that is to cancel lots of flights.”
Southwest’s CEO, Bob Jordan, in a video message on Tuesday, likened the airline’s route model to a “giant puzzle” based on airplanes and crews staying in motion.
As Southwest is the largest airline in 23 of the top 25 travel markets in the United States, it said that when severe weather led to many flight cancellations, it resulted in planes and crew being out of position in dozens of cities.
The airline “focused on getting all the pieces back in place safely to end this bumpy struggle,” the airline said.
Technical problems also hurt
Kathleen Bangs, a former commercial airline pilot and spokesperson for FlightAware, said airline scheduling is a “very complex system” that must consider union rules, federal regulations and airline policies when assigning crews and pilots to flights.
But Mr Arnot said Southwest’s system was unable to keep track of the whereabouts of crew members and pilots after so many flights were cancelled.
Casey A. Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, which represents nearly 10,000 pilots, said pilots and crew members looking for their next assignment waited hours (nine hours in one case) to speak with staff members at Southwest’s overwhelmed operations center. Southwest pilots. With nowhere to go, hundreds of pilots and crew slept alongside passengers and luggage at airports.
“When a card falls, the whole house falls here in the Southwest,” he said. “That’s our problem. We couldn’t keep up with the successive events.”
Mr Murray said the union had urged the airline to update “IT and infrastructure from the 1990s” for years.
“We’re seeing these meltdowns occur more severely and more frequently, and that was the exclamation point last weekend,” he said. The airline also suffered a technology meltdown in June 2021 that resulted in a day where half of its flights were delayed and many were cancelled; The situation took days to resolve. It experienced similar problems in October of the same year, canceling more than 1,800 flights over the course of a weekend.
Even before the problems this week, Mr. Jordan, Southwest’s CEO, admitted that the planning system was outdated.
“We’re behind,” Mr. Jordan said in November, according to Fortune. “As we’ve grown, we’ve outgrown our means.”
For example, he said Southwest does not have a fast, automated way to communicate with reassigned crew members. “Someone needs to call them or follow them at the airport and tell them,” he said.
Customers are left with few choices
Unlike other major airlines, Southwest does not have agreements with other airlines that allow passengers to fly on rival aircraft in the event of a cancellation or significant delay. “Most low-cost carriers don’t have these deals,” said Mr Arnot, largely because these deals are expensive.
“If your flight is cancelled, you will receive compensation,” he said of Southwest passengers. Or passengers are rebooked on the next available flight with the same airline.
For thousands of Southwest travelers over the past few days, this was not a viable alternative.
Katie McNamara, a Brooklyn art director, visited family in Mississippi for vacation with her husband Justin and their two children, ages 8 and 2.
They were scheduled to fly back from New Orleans on Wednesday, but were unable to find any other flights on Southwest’s website until at least January 31, when their flight was cancelled.
They paid $1,500 for four one-way tickets to New York on JetBlue on Friday. Ms. McNamara said she hopes Southwest will cover the extra cost but is waiting to call customer service. (The airline took customers to a website to rebook flights or request refunds.)
“I doubt they’re answering their phone right now,” he said.
Southwest said “reasonable reimbursement claims directly related to travel disruption” will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
McNamara, 37, who has used the Southwest for direct flights for years to visit family in Texas, New Mexico and Mississippi, said the current fiasco could not stop her from booking with the airline again.
But he said he hopes Southwest will somehow reimburse his family.
“Justin would probably be happy to get some drink tickets,” she said. Specifically, he said for an “adult drink.”
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