It all feels a little too familiar doesn’t it? Southwest is in the middle of another operational meltdown, and just like what happened early in the summer, the given explanation just doesn’t seem to cut it. It’s bad enough to have one meltdown in a year — ask Spirit for an extreme example — but two in a six month period? There’s clearly something not working right at this airline.
It has been many years since Southwest was considered a beacon of reliability, but that used to be a core trait of the airline. They even painted an airplane in 1997 to celebrate winning the Triple Crown they invented — best on-time performance, fewer mishandled bags, and lowest rate of complaints at DOT — for five straight years.
It’s rather surprising that they put this livery into the new colors and kept it flying, because it’s now just an uncomfortable reminder of a very different time. For most of this century, Southwest has been happy to sit in the middle/upper middle part of the pack when it comes to on-time performance, and that’s an operational compromise that the airline has accepted in exchange for a better commercial outcome. Southwest has been able to rely on its reputation, friendly policies, and solid customer service to keep travelers happy.
The Southwest of today is very different than the Southwest of 1997. Even in pandemic-shrunken 2021, the airline is more than three times as large as it was in 1997. In 1997, it flew to 52 domestic destinations. Today, there are 120 destinations in 10 countries. The airline used to run the same basic schedule every day but Saturday. Now it varies both weekend days wildly and even has significant differences between weekdays. It has more crew bases, and a much more complicated system. But as much as things have changed on the network side, the operation clearly has not been able to keep pace.
What is the problem, exactly? I don’t know. Southwest is very tight-lipped about operational issues, but ultimately, the buck has to stop at the top. Newly-minted president of the airline, Mike Van de Ven, has been COO for 15 years, so this is his baby. And though what we’re talking about today is very recent, the airline has had problems in the past.
Back in 2013, Southwest decided to get more aggressive with aircraft utilization, and the operation couldn’t keep up. The airline was so hamstrung by its internal systems that it took about a year before it could rectify the problem, as Mike explained to me. Even something as small as adding a row of seats to the 737-700s threw the airline for a loop. And the pace of change since then is nothing compared to what’s happened during the pandemic.
With pandemic network whiplash, Southwest has been stretching itself thin. Even with the recent schedule pulldown due to reduced demand, Southwest is still flying more and relying on employees to pick up the slack, and that has now bit the airline twice.
Take a look at this chart showing on-time performance and completion factor by day for the airline, thanks to masFlight.
Southwest On-Time and Completion Performance Since May 1
Southwest did have a rough time of it in June when it saw cancellations spike and on-time performance absolutely plummet. At the time, CEO Gary Kelly blamed weather, and then said this in an internal podcast…
The unusual number of delays ultimately leads to staffing challenges, and it’s really the delays that are causing the staffing challenges, and at times, of course, we have to resort to mandatory overtime because of the longer operating day. And that, in turn, led to higher than expected cancellations. And the delays put pressure on our Crew regulatory and contractual limits, and that in turn becomes a staffing challenge, too.
Yes, it snowballs when things go wrong. But the severity of the snowball didn’t seem to match what was being relayed by the airline. Still, it was nothing compared to what’s happening right now. You can see the airline’s cancellation rate spike dramatically at the end of that chart. On-time performance was better, but that’s probably because they just outright canceled flights instead. The story sounds about the same as last time. From an internal memo:
…we could not anticipate the significant disruption that was created from unexpected ATC issues and bad weather across our Florida stations. As we know, irregular operations disrupt even the best plans and can make it difficult to recover the operation quickly. And as we’ve seen before, an unexpected number of delays ultimately leads to a staffing shortage, and at times, mandatory overtime because of the longer operating day.
In the airline’s public statement — which came out only yesterday — it altered that to say “primarily created by weather and other external constraints.” I guess when the FAA starts clapping back at you from blaming air traffic control, you have to soften your words.
Southwest also took the opportunity in the public statement to be clear about what was not happening. “…the operational challenges were not a result of Southwest Employee demonstrations.”
There has been much speculation about this being due to pilots calling in sick to protest the vaccinate mandate, but it is unfounded. Did some pilots call in sick? Maybe, but it’s hard to see how you get from some sick calls to a complete meltdown. No reliable news source I’ve seen has confirmed any kind of job action. If it’s happening at all, it’s in small numbers.
Instead, the blame should largely be heaped back on the operational organization. Like Spirit back during the summer, Southwest seems to have lost track of its crews. The internal memo paints a picture of chaos, with those in charge of crew hotels scrambling — and in some cases failing — to find accommodation for crews scattered all over the country. The teams in the operations center are “working to protect our Crew network, and “Teams are working to determine the best course of action to most quickly reset our network.” At least when that memo came out on Sunday, they didn’t know what they were facing.
Southwest is trying to ramp up, and though you can’t see it in that chart, Sunday was the biggest planned day of flying in the last year. It seems like the simplest explanation is probably the correct one. There was a minor disruption due to weather and ATC, and then Southwest was just stretched too thin. That falls on senior operations management. The network team proposes a schedule, and the ops team has to agree it can be flown. This feels like a good, old-fashioned failure to prepare the operation in advance of ramping up… twice. The first came shortly after the airline started its summer schedule, and the second arrived shortly after Southwest started building back up after the September doldrums.
I can’t help but feel awful for all the front-line employees going through this experience. I flew Southwest both Sunday and Monday, and I’ll have that written up separately later. I asked an agent to switch me to another flight on Monday, and she did. I mentioned what a mess it was — not complaining, just observing, I might add — and she said something along the lines of “Please don’t give up on us. We’re all working so hard to get everyone where they’re going.” It was such a genuine show of emotion that it nearly broke my heart. But it does raise the question… when should we give up on the airline? This is a question that will be asked more and more if the airline can’t get its act together.