Southwest Again Blames Others For Its Operational Failures

Southwest

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.

Image via Southwest

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.

29 comments on “Southwest Again Blames Others For Its Operational Failures

  1. Cranky – thanks for the insightful write up on the situation – please tell me LUV isn’t still using a Frankenstein version of the old MARS* systems to run their operation, did they move on to a real ops system?

    *Inherited from Morris Air days

  2. Southwest took a relatively simple business plan tied to a great customer care culture and morphed it into another UA or AA. It’s way too complicated and that creates churn for their corporate culture. Plus, Southwest has stated for decades how far back they are with technology. I wonder if they’re still using some of the old Braniff systems?

  3. Amazing, and pitiful to watch this former industry darling melt down into a mess of its own making. WN has always, at least to me, been an over-hyped, overrated airline, riding on the coat tails of its long gone halcyon days. A pioneer for sure, but it long ago settled into mediocrity with a pock marked safety record. Southwest is ripe for a merger, if and when the industry ever gets back on stronger and firmer financial footing and I don’t see WN being the acquirer. It will be acquired and folded into one of the US3.

    1. I can’t see any of the US3 wanting WN. They operate so differently you’d have to handle it the way Southwest handled AirTran. They slowly pulled down AirTran and replaced it with Southwest.

      The problem with that is you’ll destroy a lot of the reason for the merger. I’m not sure a US3 acquiring WN would be able to keep the network WN has. It’s just antithetical to the hub and spoke model of the US3.

    2. Couldn’t agree more. Over-hyped and leveraging a reputation that’s no longer justified. Operationally strong? Nope! Lower fare? Not usually! Friendly? Sure – but having an AA, DL, or UA credit card gets you the same experience. As I’ve said time and time again, I understand why some people like WN but I’m not one of them. I don’t often check bags, prefer to select a seat, and want miles that actually can take me to places I want to visit. Hard pass.

      1. I got caught in the WN cancellation mess this weekend with 2 canceled flights and ended up sleeping at BWI since no flights or hotel rooms were available. It has been 5 days since this happened and haven’t even gotten a generic email apology from Southwest. Without an interlining agreement, the situation was made worse.

  4. It looks like all the airlines other than UA have had their own snafu in the past year trying to operate schedules that are close to the limit. This doesn’t seem to bode well for next year where every airline is thinking they can operate more than 2019 schedule but don’t have the headcount for them yet.

  5. “No reliable news source I’ve seen has confirmed any kind of job action”. You mean there are reliable news sources in this country? All of them, CNN, FOX, MSNBC, AP, et al report what THEY want you to hear. What we used to think of as news is all opinion from these jokers nowadays.

    1. They interviewed the head of the pilots union on NBC. He said there was no job action. To claim otherwise depends on the presence of facts.

      Do you have any?

      1. No, he doesn’t. Just stupid, toxic conspiracy theories that are as tiresome and cringeworthy as the crowd that espouses them.

      2. “The new vaccine mandate unlawfully imposes new conditions of employment and the new policy threatens termination of any pilot not fully vaccinated by December 8, 2021,” the legal filing said. “Southwest Airlines’ additional new and unilateral modification of the parties’ collective bargaining agreement is in clear violation of the RLA.”

        Of course it’s not related …

        1. An employer can impose any rules it chooses as long as it doesn’t violate union contracts if any were agreed too, OSHA, the ADA & so forth.

  6. You’re right. Southwest just isn’t Southwest anymore. How long are they going to be able to milk their “clone of PSA” reputation that made them so successful in the first place?

    Speaking of PSA…..they would pull up. Not even shut down the engines. Unload. Reload. Turn and burn in ten minutes. THAT was efficiency and performance. Also, something that WN appears to have lost sight of.

    Oh well. I guess I’m just waxing a little nostalgic for a world that really no longer exists.

    1. These planes hold many more passengers, and they are flying longer distances.

      In the old days of PSA (and WN too) the plane would pull up and pick up 40 or 50 passengers for the next leg, and that leg was 45 minutes. They didn’t have to match bags or ID passengers. They just had to switch 40 or 50 bags out and board 40 or 50 passengers with no seat assignment, get a little fuel, and off they went.

      It’s a far cry from that now, loading 175 passengers, all with lots of carryons, fueling and catering the plane for a three hour flight, and switching and matching 200 bags.

  7. As with airplane accidents, there are nearly always multiple causes that contribute to a catastrophe and that is also the case with Southwest’s operational problems. None of the suggested reasons can be ruled in or out but even internally at Southwest, they know that all of those factors are at play, nefarious and related to current events as well as decades in the making as part of rigid, Southwest-specific strategies and operations.
    A recent personal travel example with WN is indicative of what is at stake. A recent flight I took with them was delayed due to a mechanical problem and so was the flight right next door. Of course, stuff happens but what are the odds that two flights side by side mid-morning would be delayed for maintenance? The problem was fixed in about 30 minutes but the agents repeatedly said “we are just getting the paperwork in order.” The delay dragged on for hours and by the time I boarded with the A group, no one would know there was a problem because most passengers were accepting. Southwest does a good job of apologizing, all except one of the crew onboard was great, but they couldn’t overcome a lengthy delay early enough in the day that the crew was going to time out at my destination – and before the crew returned to their base. Sure enough, the crew announced on landing that the flight would terminate there. There was bound to be 3-4 more flights delayed or cancelled. The same thing was certain to have happened to the flight next door. I flew on a normal day with no weather or ATC issues. Throw in any of the suggested reasons for this most recent event combined with a holiday weekend and it isn’t a surprise that it has taken 4 days for them to overcome last Friday’s events while other airlines were back to normal by Saturday.
    Southwest has evolved its network and route system but its operations still reflect its earliest days. Van de Ven has his hands full finding a fix – and it won’t be cheap which is a challenge as WN’s costs grow to look more like the big 3 without the revenue the big 3 generate. Southwest does a fine job of blaming the very government that it has repeatedly challenged on economic regulations and has seen LUV as a favored instrument. I have several more trips this year and my tickets won’t be on Southwest. I am certainly not alone. As a Southwest investor and customer, I am looking elsewhere until LUV can fix its deep-seated problems.

    1. Amazingly evenhanded commentary from Tim Dunn.

      They’ve still got their brand, their reputation for no-fees, their egalitarian boarding and the advantage of direct-only distribution (everyone — except a few corporate customers — consciously chose to go to southwest.com, they didn’t pick Southwest because it just happened to be the first result on Expedia). So yeah, they should probably quit kidding themselves, quit trying to sell half-truths to the public and start fixing their operation. But I wouldn’t bet against Southwest.

  8. Across the globe right now we are seeing the real effects of “just-in-time” supply chain management. When everything goes perfectly, when there are no disruptions – “just-in-time” works great and saves billions in costs. But, when something irregular comes up, the cascading effects can be disastrous. It can make the whole enterprise feel like a house of cards.

    This is what’s happening at Southwest right now. And it’s bound to happen, eventually, to all the other carriers in the U.S., too, at least the ones that live at the absolute knife’s edge of productivity and “just-in-time” staffing models. In fact, Southwest’s entire route structure is based in a “just-in-time” philosophy. At least traditional hub/spoke airlines have bases to fall back on and stem the bleeding of cascading failures.

    The U.S. airline industry has become pathologically obsessed with using analysis to find the absolute smallest margin for loss. What’s happening at Southwest (whether it’s vaccine walkouts or not, and I seriously doubt that’s the biggest issue) is an example of the consequences for living on that thin, thin edge.

  9. There are systems that work in restoring the airline to operation after a disruption including aircraft and crew. They are not cheap, but the ROI is one meltdown…not one a year, but just 1. And they pay off for each minor disruption too. These have been available since the early 2000s. The airlines are typically really interested right after the meltdown … but cost and corporate inertia cause them to fail to purchase. Continental is the only one I am aware of that actually implemented a system after blizzards shut them down. I think United used it for a while after the merger, and they may have a new one in place now. But I don’t think most airlines are actually using one of these systems today. It is now inexcusable to not have disruption management software in place to optimize crew, aircraft, and passengers. Disruptions are no longer a surprise. We know they will occur to every airline, we just don’t know when.

    1. Exactly, Southwest has always tried to do their IT and other systems on the cheap, but they could only get away with it for so long.

    2. I will promise you that all major airlines currently have a software stack to help recover from IROPS.

  10. I think we have five segments out of ~30 booked for Wed/Thu/Sun on Southwest. Will be interesting to see how they’re affected. If AA hadn’t descended in force on AUS we’d have booked a lot more WN, but instead we’re relatively insulated from this week’s issues just by happenstance.

    Fingers crossed that WN drops to a schedule they can actually fly while still getting existing passengers to their destinations. Betting their fares will have to bump up to balance the demand side of the equation. At which point F9 and AA seem like they’re happy to swoop in with more capacity. Interesting to see that rebalancing in action.

  11. Who cares ?….. Why people think they are or have been the end all/ be all in the airline industry for years, never ceases to amaze me. Stupid DOMESTIC ONLY airline that just can’t compete with the majors (except with even higher prices)……. and when will they ever get rid of those kindergarten play-room, Disney, clown colors on their airplanes……Ugh !!!!

    1. Probably because it’s the only one that hasn’t declared bankruptcy… And, was always profitable till Covid…

    2. Southwest is the most profitable US airline, trades with the highest PE multiple, and is the only one to have an investment grade credit rating. When you call them stupid, you look foolish.

  12. Ever since Kelly has taken over, it’s all about the stock price and not much else… Van de Ven is way out of his depth… ever year that he has been in charge of the operation, it has gotten worse. Melt downs occur on a regular basis with no systematic recoveries. In addition, the bloated bureaucratic middle management actually works against the airline. The front line employees are pretty much on there own. It’s like what they say about UPS, they are a trucking company that happens to own airplanes. SWA is a ground ops company that happens to own airplanes… unfortunately they aren’t very good at ground ops. The hope was Nealon was going to turn it around, instead they got the guy that can’t fight his way out of a wet paper bag now in charge… kinda sad to watch the demise of once a great airline…

  13. I am amazed by that comment from the agent you mention at the end… To have the degree of loyalty and attachment to the company that the comment implies coming from an employee is something that most customer-facing companies, in any industry, would aspire to. (Certainly the one I work for would love to have that consistently across our organisation.) Clearly – despite the operations issues – they are still getting something right for some employees.

  14. My main reason for flying Southwest is comfort.

    My partner is fat enough to qualify for their customer of size policy, meaning she always gets a free empty seat next to her and when we fly together we get a whole row to ourselves. We can (uncomfortably) manage regular airline seats, without purchasing another seat, but Southwest being the only airline with a customer of size policy giving passengers a free extra seat if they need it, brings us to fly Southwest when it makes sense for us, even if it’s more expensive.

  15. I’ve been saying this for years. Brilliant airline. Don’t publish fares anywhere other than your website and get people accustomed to not shopping around (just go to SWA, assume it’s the cheapest, and book). They haven’t been friendly for nearly a decade. Spirit and Frontier, imo, lead the way with consistent friendliness while United and Delta aren’t far behind. AA employee indifference, put nicely, is made up for how quickly I can get anything resolved in their app or through their Twitter team. Rarely are they cheaper (unless you actually need to check both bags / most frequent fliers have/should have a CC with a free bag on other airlines). Flexibility is no longer a competitive advantage. SW is out of touch with technology, I can’t even search multiple departure or arrival airports (for example depart either FLL or MIA in one search). Can’t stand that I have to worry about checking in exactly 24hrs before departure, not worth paying the extra cause I’ll just fly someone else, and I hate not having an assigned seat.

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Cranky Flier