Operational disruptions happen all the time, but an operational disruption like the one Spirit has been experiencing? That is much rarer event. The last time I can remember something like this happening was the JetBlue Valentine’s Day Massacre in 2007. That was a long time ago, and it had far-reaching impacts on the airline. Spirit’s disruption looks like it’s probably even worse.
Things had been going swimmingly for Spirit for the last couple years with just a few hiccups. Former CEO Bob Fornaro had come in and prioritized fixing the operation at the airline, which had historically been known for being consistently unreliable. He and the team did not mess around and got the airline into a good place.
After Bob left and Ted Christie took over as CEO, the airline had made some efforts to increase aircraft utilization so it could keep costs low. That led to a couple of operational issues, but the airline made tweaks to get back to a respectable position. It’s a delicate balance. Then the end of July hit.
Spirit’s Disruption is Far Worse Than American’s
You’ve probably seen the news lazily try and lump together American and Spirit since both had operational issues at the same time, and both blamed them on weather. But these couldn’t have been more different.
I turned to masFlight to pull operational data so I could illustrate this. Let’s start with percent of flights completed by day.
Completion Factor by Airline July 29 – August 8
The weather really hurt American at DFW, so I included both systemwide and DFW departures so you could compare. But really, it is no comparison. American had already recovered before Spirit hit its worst day.
American, of course, is a much larger airline so when it and Spirit cancel the same percentage of flights, American impacts far more people. For American, this is pretty run-of-the-mill when it comes to operational problems on a bad thunderstorm day where the airline guesses wrong.
Spirit, as you can see, went four days without operating even half of its flights. It went 9 days where it canceled at least 15 percent of its departures. That is a catastrophic meltdown. So what exactly happened?
What Caused the Problem for Spirit
Spirit has been blaming three different things during the meltdown. It says bad weather was a problem, but so were staffing shortages. Oh, and there was an IT outage.
I think of bad weather as the trigger. Airlines can never perfectly predict what’s going to happen. Sometimes the weather is better than expected and flights were canceled even though they didn’t have to be. Otherwise, the weather is worse and things get ugly. In the summer, those thunderstorms can be unpredictable. The airline’s ops team has to make the best decisions it can, and sometimes those go the wrong way. It sounds like that’s what happened here.
When weather hits, airplanes and crews will be in the wrong places. It’s up to the airline to try to put things back together again, and that can take some time. Here’s where gas gets poured on the fire.
First, Spirit has a staffing shortage, so that means there is less ability to push people into the system to free up logjams. Then, a well-placed IT outage could very well be the nail in the coffin.
In fact, it looks like there may have been multiple IT outages. The AFA flight attendant union said in a release on August 3 that there was “another” crew scheduling system outage that locked schedulers out for over an hour.
This is where things enter the “rare” zone. At some point, things are so out of whack, that any effort to recover can actually plunge the airline deeper into trouble. When everything came together here, it sounds like Spirit might not have even known where its crews were at various points. When that happens, there’s only one thing to do: shut it down and reset.
This is what happened in that snowstorm in New York in 2007 with JetBlue. It thought it could just fly through the weather and it most definitely could not. Things got worse and worse until they had to do a reset. Spirit took way too long to realize it needed to do that, but eventually it did.
Domestic vs Non-Domestic Completion Factor
It looks like after Monday, August 2, Spirit made a decision to crush the domestic operation and try to keep some semblance of an international operation flying, where there are far fewer reaccommodation options. (I reached out to Spirit to try to get some clarity, but I never heard back.)
By August 4, Spirit’s international operation had finally completed more than 50 percent of flights. Domestically, however, it remained mired closer to 30 percent and didn’t pass 50 percent until two days later when it just barely scraped above the halfway point. Now it looks to be layering in more and more.
The recovery is well underway, but it’s choppy. Some stations are doing better than others. Here’s a look at completion factor by Spirit’s ten largest airports.
Spirit Departure Completion Factor For Top-10 Airports By Volume
It’s a little messy, but the yellow shading is the system average. With the exception of Orlando, the top 10 stations did fairly well early on, but you can see on Aug 2 when strategic decisions were made. All of a sudden, Atlanta, Myrtle Beach, and Houston took a turn for the worse. Later, as the recovery began, you see LAX taking a hit. Presumably the airline is prioritizing its core markets first, and LAX way out on the West Coast will have to recover later.
Spirit may finally get this under control this week with operations getting back to normal, but there’s still so much more to deal with. There were thousands and thousands of impacted passengers. Some of those people took matters into their own hands and people working Spirit flights probably have PTSD from the experience. (I’ve heard all kinds of horrible rumors about the anarchy that happened in San Juan.)
There will be a post-mortem, and fingers will be pointed. But ultimately, Spirit has a lot of pieces to pick up here, and we’ll see how this experience impacts their future planning efforts. At JetBlue, CEO David Neeleman took the blame and was replaced by his COO Dave Barger. At Spirit, we’ll see where the axe falls and what that means for the future.