Southwest Continues to Irresponsibly Blame the Weather For Its Woes

Operations, Southwest

It’s not every day I get to accuse an airline of gaslighting, but that appears to be exactly what Southwest has been doing in regards to its meltdown last week. The airline continues to push the narrative that weather and “other external factors” — that is how it says “air traffic control” without getting the FAA to clap back again — caused this cascade of failures. Apparently Southwest hopes it can say this enough to make you think you’re crazy for not believing it. The problem is… the data suggests that while the weather likely started this whole thing, the resulting failure is more of an internal issue.

A very late apology from COO and now-President Mike Van de Ven late last week said the weather in Florida was bad on Friday, October 8, and that started the chain reaction. This is undoubtedly correct, and it’s the same narrative we’ve heard on the rare occasion Southwest has said something publicly about this. The problem is that these public apologies seem to completely omit the fact that it should have been easier to recover from this disruption. There is something about how Southwest is set up operationally that turned this into an epic failure impacting the whole country. I suppose Southwest thinks if it just ignores that part, people will assume it did nothing wrong.

The picture Mike paints in his letter is that Southwest has 40 to 50 percent of its aircraft touching Florida on any given day, so it was impacted more than most when the weather rolled through. But you know what? Southwest has had that level of ops for some time. And you know what else? Florida has a lot of thunderstorms, fairly often. I know… crazy.

Let’s start with Mike’s point about having such a huge piece of the operation touching Florida. It’s really hard for me to look at the percent of aircraft by airline that touch Florida, but I can look at the percent of flights relatively easily thanks to Cirium data. Here’s how that breaks down.

% of Flights Touching Florida
October 8, 2021

Southwest has a similar percentage of flights touching Florida as American with its big Miami hub, but that’s a very different model. To the left of Southwest in the chart, however, are four airlines that have a much higher percentage of flights touching the state. I’d hazard a guess that they have higher percentages of their fleets touching Florida on any given day.

How much were those airlines impacted? Well, here’s a look at all Florida departures that day, flown and canceled, by airline.

Florida Total October 8 Departures
Flown vs Canceled

Data via masFlight/Anuvu

Southwest canceled a third of its flights while Spirit canceled 13 percent and Frontier just over 10 percent. That’s not normal, and that is why it’s clear weather played some factor in this, but Southwest is just in a different league of terribleness here so it couldn’t have been weather alone.

Originally, the letter from Mike went on to say this:

But it was quickly changed to say this:

If you’re wondering why Southwest would change the wording, it seems fairly obvious to me. Someone caught them in a lie that was easy to refute, so they just changed it to be more vague and harder to challenge. It’s these kinds of shenanigans that pushed me to dig harder into the data instead of just moving on to the next topic.

Southwest has suggested that Orlando was the biggest problem. There was weather primarily to the north and west of the airport with lightning in the vicinity for much of the afternoon, and that did have an impact. But how much of an impact?

I took a look at operations by hour for the whole airport that day, just manually picking the data out from Flightaware. Then I compared it to the day prior, a Thursday.

Orlando Total Departures Per Hour
October 8 vs October 7

I’m not sure why there were so many more departures on Friday than Thursday in the morning, but that isn’t what really stands out. What I see here is the big decrease in departures between noon and 2pm that suggests the first wave of weather, and then things start to fall off a cliff again after 8pm, later in the day. But despite the fall-off, there were still some operations happening. This makes Southwest’s original “7 hour” excuse more suspect.

I looked at arrivals as well, and those were more steady. They didn’t see a big fall-off until after 7pm, so that tells me that it was the departure path that was blocked earlier in the day but arrivals were able to continue until Southwest gave up, making things worse.

Now that we know what the airport looked like that day, how did Southwest look with its 97 scheduled departures?

Orlando Southwest Departures Per Hour
October 8 vs October 7

You can see that Southwest did fine in the morning, but then trouble showed up around mid-day. It started to pick back up, but then… nothing. It just gave up at the end of the day entirely.

If we dig deeper, it’s easy to see what happened. Between noon and 3pm, 12 of the 16 scheduled departures were delayed by at least an hour as weather rolled through. While this was happening, arrivals continued to come in, and that must have created a massive gate crunch.

The first inbound cancellation happened on a flight that was supposed to arrive at 2:30pm. Then for flights scheduled from 2:45pm, some outbound flights began canceling. With planes piling up, the cancellations mounted as Southwest tried to get some planes out. By the time 7pm rolled around, Southwest canceled the rest of the departures of the day. There were supposed to be 35 arrivals scheduled after that point, but only 4 made it.

The afternoon saw lightning in the general vicinity from around 2pm through 7pm when Southwest gave up. My guess is that Southwest decided to just do a reset and start over the next morning, but we all know that didn’t happen. Southwest could have flown more flights than it did, especially later in the day, but it either just made a bad decision or it simply didn’t have the resources available. Either way, that’s on Southwest. The result was airplanes and crews stranded in Orlando, but more importantly it kept Orlando-based crews scattered around the system when inbound flights canceled. Then Southwest couldn’t figure out how to put it all back together again.

To sum it up, it sounds like Southwest made a decision to just stop operating, didn’t have a plan for getting its pilots where they needed to be, and then completely fell apart. Whatever happened, and we’ll probably never know, this then cascaded throughout the entire system and Southwest lost track of the crews, melting down and impacting the entire network.

This shouldn’t be a story about the weather. Sure, weather or ATC delays or whatever was probably the catalyst, but this should be a story about Southwest not having adequate resources or practices to recover from something that should have been more routine than it was. The fact that Southwest just keeps heaping blame on the weather is the only reason that it continues to get more pushback. I honestly can’t understand the public-facing strategy here. It would be far easier and wiser to just admit that this was an internal failure, and then outline how it’ll be fixed. Instead, Southwest will keep this story in the news long after the operation has recovered for no good reason.

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41 comments on “Southwest Continues to Irresponsibly Blame the Weather For Its Woes

  1. WN is nothing like they were in the past. They are still living off their rep of being a friendly airline with low fares. Except (if you don’t need to check bags) their fares are often higher than competitors, they run a substandard operation and are terrible with IRROPS. My money goes to Delta or United when possible (my closest airport is ONT which WN practically owns).

    1. I work at a facility that is on FAA property. Sometimes planes are grounded because there are other flights in the air, not just commercial airlines but shipping companies, personal aircraft as well, and there is no room to land. When the weather is bad, safety lights come on, everything on the tarmac gets shut down and everything gets backed up. It could be a few minutes, it could be hours before there is room to land. The luggage people cannot be outside during lightning so that’s a hold up as well. Also, spirit likes to have issues as well. Some of the problems are the pilots refusing to.get the vaccine. Lots of issues combined.

  2. Has Southwest recovered operationally from last weekends meltdown? I assume yes since all the news coverage refers to last weekend in the past tense.

    Booked to fly Southwest this weekend MDW-SNA, and returning on the quite new LGB-MDW flight (thinking of Brett and excited to fly out of the open-air Long Beach terminal). Spirit’s $99 round-trip ORD-LAX fares on our travel dates are feeling a little tempting although the goal was to avoid larger and more busy airports this trip.

    1. I was a big LGB fan when B6 had a base there. It was great to land, walk to the gate, and grab your rental car quickly at the trailer. LAX is a lousy option with its congestion and pain to get to the rental car locations via a slow shuttle. There is a Jersey Mikes outside LGB that I would grab a hero before going LGB to JFK. Was better than any sandwich you can buy onboard.

  3. I imagine that one stupidly simple solution would be to simply have the entire crews plan/bid/assigned to a specific *plane*. Each day, that entire crew stays together, and follows wherever that plane goes.

    It almost sounds like they allowed mixing of crews throughout the day. If one plane gets delayed, then that gets to have a multiplicative adverse impact to a bunch of other planes (as crews get stranded).

    This way, you would not be mixing up crews and planes throughout the day: one plane being delayed only impacts that *single* plane- it cannot cascade into other other planes (if the crews intermix, one flight from an unaffected city might have, say, a captain but not a first officer if that FO’s plane got delayed earlier in the day).

    1. In practice that is what a lot of airlines do via their bids prior to the month (not by airplane but by trip pairing). The problem comes when pilot trade part or all of their pairing to another pilot, a pilot calls out sick (before or during a trip), a pilot calls out fatigued (before or during a trip). Additionally there are training events (new hire pilots, or pilots getting a line check) that sometimes messes with the original pairing. When the month comes, assigning crews to an airplane does not always work… airplanes are routed based on maintenance needs (some are limited due to items on MEL, or the airplane needs to get to a particular maintenance base). A lot of the aircraft routing changes occur because of maintenance that is required on a tactical level. Not saying the airlines cant do better with all of this, but they know its inefficient for crews to be broken up and ship swaps to happen, but sometimes there is not any other way…especially in the complex domestic environment with so many different maintenance bases, crew bases, etc…

    2. The other potential factor that compounds WN’s crew scheduling is how they build their trips on the 737-800/MAX fleets. Currently those trips are built with three FAs and the pilots together along with a standalone fourth position. While on the one hand it conceivably prevents needing to build dedicated -700 versus -800 crew trips which enables greater flexibility, at least at my home airport PVD, I’ve experienced many delayed 738 and MAX trips waiting for our fourth flight attendant to come off of a different flight than the rest of the crew (who had previously arrived on a -700 and had a layover). @Cranky, I don’t know if this also would have further limited WN’s ability to restart on Saturday because any -800/MAX flight conceivably could require two crews to be in the right place not just one.

      I’ll also say in PVD that I have a tougher time booking WN since Frontier’s arrival, since for us needing two checked bags is a rarity the total out of pocket cost for my wife and I to fly to visit her parents outside of Tampa rarely makes sense.

    3. Planes don’t have limits on duty hours, crews do. Planes don’t care where they end up at the end of the day, crews do (or at least the airline wants to minimize the amount of deadheading and hotel stays).

      Reducing or minimizing the amount that crews have to mix and move between planes throughout the day makes sense, but trying to completely eliminate it wouldn’t work.

  4. A few years ago I was flying DTW-BNA weekly. When winter weather threatened disruptions, SW was FAR more likely to cancel flights than other airlines. I fear there is something in their system that makes it far more difficult to deal with disruptions than other airlines. Outer Space Guy’s solutions might make a real difference. Also, rather than having one plane bounce all over the country, and thus be vulnerable to disruptions anywhere in the US, the could do more simple out and backs, or at least routes that are limited to one region and a small number of airports. That should isolate any problems, rather than the current built-in cascading of inevitable disaster.

    1. There’s a name for this: “out and back flying.” United talked about it a lot in the mid-2010s, they switched from “planes all over” (not the actual name) to “out and back” to help their on-time numbers, isolate hub problems (for UA, EWR’s bad day doesn’t affect ORD because planes are routing EWR-BOS-EWR instead of EWR-BOS-ORD). Problem is, “planes all over” allows for higher aircraft utilization than “out and back,” which means more revenue on the same fixed aircraft cost. Anyhow, Southwest needs to save cost wherever it can, so it’s going to play with fire by pushing utilization as high as possible, then they get burned, as they did a few years ago, and as covered by Cranky.

      (Other fun fact: I believe Southwest used to be unable to issue conjunctive tickets, so they were limited to four coupons per ticket. Hence their continuing flight numbers and frequent one- or two-stop flight options on the same flight, because that was the only way to support some connecting itineraries on so few coupons. I assume that the Amadeus PSS has fixed this for them.)

  5. Southwest needs to fully understand the fragility of its crew scheduling systems and procedures in order to make changes which will prevent a recurrence. This includes improvements in recovery procedures and keeping some resources on the shelf.

  6. I guess the higher-ups at WN took the song “Blame it on the Rain” a little to seriously? WN wasn’t gaslighting everyone, they were jet fueling them.

  7. Some are blaming this on planned “sick outs” by WN staff to protest the company’s vaccine policy.

    1. Well “some” are wrong.

      Both the company and pilot’s union have said that’s not true. It’s down more to a network that doesn’t have any resiliency built into. But hey, why let boring reality get in the way of a good narrative?

    2. So far there is zero evidence that this is true. Is it possible a few pilots here and there are taking sickies they shouldn’t be? Sure, unlikely but possible. But if it was a concerted, union-led effort there’d be evidence and the company would be screaming in the media and at least threatening to seek injunctions.

      Companies lie, unions lie (ask any subway-dependent New Yorker about TWU Local 100), but for the two to coordinate lies? Nah.

    3. The real problem is no margin for error resources in the airline industry. All of them can plan a little for minor disruptions in a portion of the network, but major disruptions gum up the whole system and the customers are backed up for days. And some airlines don’t allow flexibility to get the passengers to a destination on alternatives routes because of fare differences. Stupid. Get them to their destination any way you can if there is an empty seat. I was stuck in ORD because the airline delayed a connection. I was flying to Phoenix. They had empty seats to Vegas and Tucson, but would not allow it unless I paid more. I DIDN’T CAUSE THE MISSED CONNECTION YOU INFLEXIBLE PEABRAINS!! Just get me to my side of the country! I was forced to stay over in Chicago until the next afternoon.

  8. Long time listener, first time caller. WN is a complete mess in general right now. Last weekend was an exception to an already operationally failing rule. I mostly fly DL as a PM (but I’m not a DL apologist) and pick up quite a bit of WN and AS flying. Neither my wife nor I have been on a WN itinerary this year that hasn’t been delayed at least two hours and in one case 7 hours – with no option to jump ship to another airline (I would have paid market rate, but there were literally no other flights leaving ABQ at that point), stranding us in Denver after hours in the middle of the night, our connection a long gone glimmer in the gate agents eye. To Brett’s point, the gaslighting is real. In E.V.E.R.Y instance it’s weather or ATC or both, even that day there wasn’t a cloud in the sky over the entire Continental US. Is that hyperbole? Probably, but it’s closer to the truth than the crack WN is peddling. The worst is they don’t even own how bad the delay will be, starting at 15mins and then growing incrementally until it’s too late for you to find a new routing. What a disaster!

  9. Is this result of their failure to invest in adequate systems? I know for years their systems didn’t allow flights to operate on different days, go international, etc. I know that’s been fixed but perhaps there are still other legacy systems for resource allocation that are now failing miserably.

    1. Bill – I really don’t know, but I think it’s probably safe to assume that the technology is not as good as it should be. I just don’t know where the real need is.

    2. WN is on the most advanced reservation/W&B/check-in platform of all the airlines in the US, ironically enough (no idea on their crew scheduling platform though). But they intentionally handicap their systems’ abilities and do not use most of features to their full potential. It comes down to WN’s structural inefficiencies that helped it get to where it is today, but continue to hamstring its operations as it outright resists the serious need to become more ‘hybrid’ rather than a true LCC. The function of an airline is to get passengers to where they need to go as close to on-time as possible. By having ZERO interline partnerships they will continue to struggle and repeat the same bad PR moves over and over again. The strong goodwill WN has built over the years will not last forever if they keep these lies coming out of their corporate mouthpiece.

  10. …but No Matter What Anyone May Say, this situation had Nothing To Do With The “Vaccine” Mandate!

    Perhaps it is just the newest “Variant” I believe it is called the “Freedom Flu” variant?

    Apparantly, this latest variant is extremely contagious, and new “cases” are actually increasing at unprescedented rates.

    If we do not do everything in our power, as Freedom Loving Americans to stop this variant now, we risk having Serious Travel and Supply Chain Issues..Far Worse than we currently are experiencing!

    This would create a domino effect which could potentially have devastating effects on the economy here and abroad!

    We have got to face this variant head on, there is no time to waste…We MUST stand up and Fight the Root Cause of this variant and Stop It Now!

    It is a Serious Crisis that We Can Stop, but We must Stand Together and Show It that Without US, It Has No Power.

    God Bless America and All of the Freedom Loving People of the World!
    Together, We Will Win! All Colors, All Religions, No matter who you love or how you identify, no matter your political ideaology, United We Stand, Divided We Fall!

  11. WN was delaying flights left and right this past weekend, as well. And holding connections for delayed flights, which, in turn, delayed those flights on their next leg. I love that they hold the flights, but it continues to mess up their schedules. Add to this the fact that their baggage handlers don’t seem able to load baggage on the flights, resulting in lost luggage lines of 20+ persons, and this past weekend was still a mess, albeit not the disaster of the previous weekend. And yes, I had two badly delayed flights (2+ hours and 1.2 hours) and no luggage when I arrived, even with a 1.5 hour layover…

  12. I find it curious that WN is walking back their jab mandate saying they won’t put anyone on unpaid leave. While I know there isn’t evidence of a coordinated sick-out, clearly they are having staffing issues. (Who isn’t?) Not sure why they don’t come clean and admit that they are short staffed. I’m having to tell clients that – we literally can’t hire people fast enough right now. Most people should be aware of the macro of the situation we are in right now, no?

    1. Alex – That’s a whole lot of assuming right there. First, so what if there was a protest at headquarters yesterday? As I understand it, most weren’t employees anyway. And yes, flights continue to be delayed because Southwest continues to not be properly set up operationally. And the CNBC article simply says if you’ve applied for an exemption and it hasn’t come through by Dec 8, you won’t be fired. That’s not much of a change.
      Regardless of all this, have you any proof of any vax-related action?
      Because nobody has been able to find it. I could say that the delays were caused by space aliens, but if I can’t prove it, I would suggest you don’t believe me.

  13. I realize that most industry insiders and journalists have hit a brick wall when questioning airline employees or leadership in regards to the impact of vaccine mandates. Nor was the union going to openly admit that they either encouraged this or were aware of their membership doing this. The smokescreens and “it wasn’t me” hands went up immediately. Openly criticizing leadership on Covid is grounds for being terminated these days. So to a certain extent we have to go with “where there is smoke there is fire.”

    Delays and cancellations started in masse when the mandates and the lawsuits were announced, 12 days later the airline is quietly making a huge change in their mandate position: They will not fire you or put you on unpaid leave for not getting vaxxed. Now they will be working with you on a religious or medical exemption (which is what all of these companies should be doing from a legal standpoint anyway – vaccine exemptions are well established precedent and as old as vaccines themselves). Additionally, trying to shoehorn in brand new requirements for employment after an employee has already accepted a position is problematic from a legal standpoint as well. Especially for union employees.

    Anyway, long story short, let’s watch the next few days and see if their “operational issues” start trending magically towards normal and you will have your answer. Like you, it would be helpful for these airlines to be forthcoming instead of all the Covid cloak and dagger BS.

    1. Alex – Of course the union won’t stay anything, but there are plenty of people out there who would gladly say something to go down in glory. We’ve seen it happen all over, people taking a stand and then showing up on Fox News. The idea that there isn’t a single person willing to do that suggests it can’t be widespread. Sure, there may be some who are taking it into their own hands, and that can contribute, but this is something different.

      You want to wait for the operation to get back to normal, but it was already there. There has been greater than 99% completion for the airline since Friday. Friday had a 73% on time rate, Saturday 80%, Sunday 73%, and yesterday 86%. Today looks worse from an on-time perspective but cancels are still tiny. I’m not sure how you look at that and say that the operation will now magically get better. It’s been getting better, but it’s going to get hit again because Southwest just can’t run things this thin when there are outside forces impacting performance.

      1. I feel for the passengers affected. There is nothing as helpless as being stranded/missing connections/cancelled flights.
        Operationally, I don’t know if WN can take too many PR hits before it starts a downward public perspective spiral.

        My real beef is with all of the airlines blaming weather on anything. They fly planes…in the sky…where weather is. They have zero excuse to not be prepared.

      2. Sometimes what you don’t say or what you say with actions is more telling than what you do say.

        The fact that they crawfished on their mandate soon after the operational debacle tells you that the mandate play at least a part in the mess.

        1. John G – They didn’t do anything to their mandate except tell people who had applied for exemptions and not had them ruled on that they wouldn’t fire them on Dec 8 while they waited for a ruling.

  14. This is Van de Ven legacy. I don’t know what he has on Kelly (ie pictures, dirt), but he should have been ….. years ago. Every year under his management (not leadership), the operation has gotten worse and worse…. Meltdown after meltdown… Kelly only seems to care when it affects the stock price.

  15. How is blaming the weather a Southwest thing? All airlines do it and they do it for a specific reason as it relates to compensation to passengers.

    You have been writing “whining” articles lately. It seems to have started around the time you and Tim Dunn got into a pissing match about his praises for Delta. Ever since then, the tone of your articles changed.

    1. I believe Cranky has now written two articles with data backing up why this sort of weather blame is an unusually Southwest thing.

      I don’t even think Delta had a weather spin this broad after their ATL operations meltdown due to successive lines of thunderstorms a few years ago. And that definitely was weather-related.

    2. There’s nothing wrong with blaming the weather…when the weather is the actual problem. Look at the stats Brett posted. No other airline had WN’s problems on the days in question. (AA had quite a few cancellations in Florida too, but on a much larger base.)

      The facts in this particular case don’t line up with Southwest’s explanation.

  16. Dude, why are you using 3rd party data sources collected from some hobbies raspberry pi when the government makes this stuff available for free. One thing that caught my attention that most outlets missed was one of the delay programs the FAA issued on Friday 10/8. This airspace flow program was set to a zero rate for two hours. ZERO! effectively closing the sky for half of the state of Florida for two hours. The link below is to an FAA advisory. This is what pilots and airlines use to get status updates of ATC. The database is public and can be manipulated to display more than two weeks’ history by changing the values in the URL.

  17. All the talk about Southwest blaming the weather seems backward: Southwest is admitting that storms in one part of Florida were able to tank its entire operation for days. Since weather will continue to be part of life, their excuse itself will make me hesitate to book them anywhere on their network in the future.

  18. Southwest execs said on their quarterly earnings call today that sick calls have recently been above normal and they are now increasing the percentage of flight attendant and pilot reserves.
    They acknowledge they do not have the staff to run the operation as they have in the past and overscheduled based on staffing during the 3rd quarter. Staffing was a major theme of the call.
    Also, there were a number of analyst and press questions about their vaccination and accommodation strategies.

    1. Better figure out how to train this “new” staff… so, far they’ve only been able to hire 3 of the 70 needed pilot instructors. Rumor is the pay offered is subpar compared to the industry…

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