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
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.