Southwest’s Holiday Failure is Great News for Future Travelers

Operations, Southwest

I’m back from exile, and man am I glad nothing big happened while I was gone. Oh wait, that massive Southwest opreational failure? I suppose we should talk about that.

Granted, I was watching more from a distance during my break, but most of the media coverage I saw of this was pretty awful. There were a lot of potentially false assumptions and tying of things together that had no business being mentioned in the same article — like the cancellations due to the FAA computer failure in Florida somehow being tied back to Southwest’s troubles. Please. Today I’m not going to look backwards too much, though I do hope to do that in a future post. Instead, let’s talk about why this is a good thing.

I know, I know, the headline seems clickbait-y, but I really do mean it sincerely. I expect a whole lot of good to come out of this, but then again that could just be wishful thinking. Now that we have a little time behind this mess, hopefully we can put away the pitch forks and actually look at this rationally.

Southwest Blew It

Yes, this was bad. I have no need to rehash what happened in great detail, because you’ve read that part everywhere. While much of what you’ve read may not have been entirely accurate, I don’t have enough first-hand knowledge gathered at this point to do better. And when that happens, I’d rather just not write. What a novel concept. But try to throw aside union hot takes and narratives from freaked-out travelers if you can. There are a couple of things I want to mention here.

In short, Southwest saw a nasty storm coming and pre-canceled a bunch of flights. Even that couldn’t prepare for issue after issue that plagued the airline, ranging from frozen hydraulics at Midway to unexpected fog in San Diego. Flights were already jam-packed for the holidays and there was no room to spare, but then, the wheels just fell off.

Why this turned into a meltdown instead of just a bad couple of days is where the gaps lie in my knowledge right now. But it does seem to follow the time-honored tradition created by other airlines over the years. The airline’s systems couldn’t keep up, especially on the crew side of the house, and there was no easy way back to normal. After trying to fix the airline from a running start, Southwest learned what all airlines learn… you have to shut it down and reboot.

But for Southwest, it actually — somewhat impressively when considered in a vacuum — was able to restart the airline by operating a third of its operation from the day after Christmas through the Thursday before New Years. It closed out space for sale on all flights after Christmas and basically froze the airline.

This was unquestionably an unmitigated disaster for holiday travelers, but as always, it will be forgotten. These incidents never have lasting long-term impacts despite what people say in the short run. Southwest still has enough goodwill — somewhat shockingly considering how often this has happened lately — to recover just fine. So if we assume that management’s failures on the customer and communications side of the house won’t have a lasting impact, what will be the legacy of this mess other than a nine-figure bill for reimbursing expenses and doling out Rapid Rewards points?

Management Has a Blank Check to Fix This

I’ve seen all sorts of people clamoring for management’s heads. Let’s just calm down here for a minute. During Southwest’s last massive failure in 2021, I said, “…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.”

Now, Mike has left the building, so it is a different situation. CEO Bob Jordan took over from Gary Kelly and came into his role only on February 1, less than a year ago. He wasn’t in the operation before. He technically didn’t even have the President job until this week when he took it from Mike. Mike finally gave up his COO job on October 1 when former Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Watterson stepped in.

The team in place today knows that there’a big problem in the operation, but if you think that they can snap their fingers and have something fixed right away after years and years of neglect under the previous regime, then you’re asking too much. This has to be considered the final, horribly spectacular operational failure of the previous COO and CEO.

Plans were already put into place to speed up modernization of the operation, but there’s always that balance of spending and resources vs time to fix. That better no longer be an issue Southwest is too big of an airline, and it’s too important in the country. The airline needs to spend as much as it needs to get the right tech in place — I mean, maybe they can upgrade from DOS to Windows 3.1 — and hire an army of professionals to fix this.

Whether the plan they implement is a good one or not, well, that’s to be determined down the road. But there should be absolutely nothing stopping Andrew from putting his plan into motion now, unless former CEO Gary Kelly — current Chairman of the Board — decides to try to go out with a bang. I can’t see that happening. The clock is ticking.

DOT Gets a Christmas Gift and Can Now Give One to the Rest of Us

For the last year, the Department of Transportation under Secretary Buttiegieg has been looking for a fight. It wants to show it’s serious about standing up for consumers, but the efforts so far have involved a lot of saber rattling and little action. If they were just looking for anything big to open the door to action, Southwest just swung open the entire side of the barn.

We have not seen a good customer response from Southwest, and I don’t understand how there isn’t a better plan in place considering this has happened before. For days the airline said nothing. Then it talked about being willing to reimburse people for their alternate travel, but they didn’t put out clear guidelines. If I could only find a $3,000 ticket from Chicago to LA, would I get my money back? Who knows? It took Southwest far too long even to put out a policy saying it would reimburse, even without numbers attached.

Poor Southwest employees were overwhelmed by this at every point. If you got through on the phone at all, it was a Christmas miracle. If you went to the airport, you were greeted by hours-long lines snaking through. There was no relief and at a time when people just wanted to see their family, Southwest failed. Badly.

This is terrible for those who were stuck in this mess, but it should be a golden opportunity for the DOT to make great strides in improving actual passenger protections here.

The top of my wishlist continues to be that DOT mandate interline reaccommodation during irregular operations at fixed rates. There is no reason Southwest can’t put people on other airlines. Sure, it takes some IT work, but the benefit would be so much greater. Mandate some kind of settlement rate, do whatever you need to do. But just make it happen.

I would expect that DOT action would go well beyond what was actually impacted during this event. After all, if you’re the government, you want to take advantage of an event like this to push through what you can, right? I have no doubt I’ll disagree with some (ok, most) of the things that get proposed, but I have hope that the end result will still be a far better situation for those who get stuck in a situation like we saw unfold this holiday.

These meltdowns just should not happen, and Southwest’s current ops team certainly knows it and should have carte blanche to fix it. But airlines are complex beasts and, well, shit happens. When it does happen, travelers should have the confidence that they will be taken care of better than they have been up until now. Previous meltdowns have yet to get any worthwhile action, so hopefully this will be the catalyst that actually creates change for future travelers.

71 comments on “Southwest’s Holiday Failure is Great News for Future Travelers

    1. Bill – if you’ve been reading Cranky for any length of time, you know that your comment is, at best, rash. How F/A’s treat the customers has nothing to do with running a competent operation, and specifically having a competent, flexible IT infrastructure. Let’s instead focus on the problems that need to be addressed rather than silly assertions that don’t move the ball forward. (And sorry about the mixed metaphor…)

  1. I’ve seen it again and again in big companies with critical legacy systems (ERP/production/inventory/scheduling/etc systems) that are decades old and in the process of (very slowly) being modernized… Even when management recognizes that the ancient systems need to be replaced, management (and most of the shareholders, and frankly, also most of the employees) never wants to rush the process, because change sucks and is hard and expensive, and because those systems are ALWAYS (no matter what lip service is paid to the contrary) seen as overhead costs to be minimized, not as business/profit enablers.

    Do that long enough, and you inevitably get a major systems meltdown that brings the company to its knees, and that wakes everyone up to the fact that the backbones of the company have been held together with bubblegum, duct tape, and super glue for years. A few token heads roll, the company spends a fortune on contractors, consultants, and subject matter experts, and the new system (that was always “3 years away” from being implemented) gets implemented ASAP. It’s a bit of a mediocre replacement, but it’s progress, and with any luck management continues to throw money at the new system until most of the rough edges are worked out.

    Twenty or thirty years later the cycle starts to repeat itself.

    I hate sounding/being so cynical, but this is how “progress” is made from a systems side in many large organizations.

    All that said, and more specific to Southwest Airlines… I knew Andrew Watterson back in his consulting days. Though I haven’t kept in touch, I still remember Andrew as a VERY sharp guy who knew how to fix things and get things done fast, and who had little tolerance for BS or excuses.

    To Brett’s point, this debacle is NOT on Andrew or his team. The holiday meltdown will give WN’s Ops team the funds and the internal political power to push things through that they have previously been prevented from doing. They may have to run the operation a bit less efficiently (with a bit more slack) until a long term fix is implemented, and there will certainly be some embarrassing and public hiccups along the way, as it won’t be easy, but I bet they’ll get it done.

    1. Very interesting insight, especially re Watterson. Sounds like you’ve done your time in consulting!

      1. Thanks.

        I’m not a systems or IT guy, just a cube-dwelling corporate peon, but once you work with/in/for a few large companies, you start to notice patterns, especially when you have to wait (on the ONE guy in the factory who knows the old system) to get the data that you need for your analysis. :-)

        On a related note, if I had a kid interested in programming, I’d push them to learn at least one of the ancient programming languages. Lots of people know Java or C++, but few people know languages that are the backbone of the old green screen or mainframe systems (think COBOL). Those who do can make a VERY good living for themselves.

        1. Completely agree we need to reintroduce mandatory interline reaccommodation. In addition, I’d like to see a passenger rights framework similar to EU 261, introduced here in the states. Reaccommodation’s the most important but the EU has proven time and time again to be ahead of us on this. I’m fly to Europe 8x a year for work and on the rare occasion a flight is delayed by meaningful amount, I’m told my rights, told what I’m allowed to ask for, how to file, etc.

          1. I think EU 261 is a bit excessive (remember the expenses airlines incurred under “duty of care” when that volcano erupted?), but for areas the airline has control over better compensation could spur airlines to develop better systems. “We have an ancient IT system” shouldn’t be an excuse for days of misery.

  2. I still have questions as to exactly why this happened. It’s not like they scheduled a ton of extra flights. They have to have a system that handles X flights, with a set number of pilots, flight attendants, and planes each day.

    Does anyone know what specifically why Southwest failed so very badly here compared to everyone else?

    1. I’m going to speculate a combination of things, all bad.

      Fully loaded planes, weather issues started to cascade with no end in sight so, crappy systems or not, WN had no ability to rebook passengers anytime soon.

      I’ve also read that their crew scheduling system is the very worst of their myriad antiquated systems and simply could not effectively reassign the crews based on the impact of the delays on their service times.

      I expect Brett to have far better insight but that’s what I’ve gleaned from my readings.

      1. I heard that the crew scheduling system definitely was an issue. Relatedly I saw a video or two of a WN FA who noted being on the phone on hold to get to crew scheduling to tell them where she was when her trip was interrupted  I mean okay, but that’s pretty inefficient. Perhaps an email or even better an automatic web form or something? It was 2022 not 2000.

  3. As I was leaving DEN, which already was the Zombie Apocalypse with lines everywhere, without our bags at 2:30am on now Thursday, December 22, there was a tremendous amount of traffic heading to DEN. I know you are not looking backward, but I do wonder if a simple statement from DEN/WN stating that if you have not begun travel yet (i.e. you live in Denver area) do not come here at all may have helped. Did the crush of passengers desiring to go on a trip when by this time it should have been fairly obvious they would not be able to do so exacerbated the situation?

    1. Given that DEN is a triple hub airport, the airport team probably felt it wasn’t their place to say anything about one of their hub airlines. Afterall, F9 and UA recovered quite well from the weather situation. It was only WN that stuffed it. That being said, DEN has invited all the airlines to a post-mortem review of the situation to understand what DEN could do better in the future. Perhaps that will be raised during that process, but I would doubt it. F9 and UA wouldn’t want anything said in such a situation given they were mostly fine.

      1. I was more suggesting in the absence of leadership from WN (it was quiet chaos there as no one seemed willing to be in charge), DEN airport as a safety precaution had told WN customers not to come. Since I was in different concourse and on different bag side than other airlines I have only heard the others were not as impacted, but left it open that all airlines were at least having problems that late night/early morning, so understand your comment. The trains from all concourses were a mess, by the way, since it seemed one side was having maintenance.
        Thank you.

        1. That sounds like asking the DEN management to go and piss off one of their biggest tenants. It’d result in a nasty meeting at best and a lawsuit and perhaps even reduced flights at worst.

          The line they could’ve threaded would be a “Southwest gate areas are very overcrowded, many Southwest flights are canceled. Please check southwest.com for your flight’s status before departing.

          1. Yes, something along those lines. But maybe all the people didn’t make a difference and fire marshal type limits weren’t being pushed anyway. When I showed up again to luckily successfully retrieve the bags (one of the few, though snow covered and frozen) around 9am it was still a mob scene, though orderly, thank goodness.

    2. “Legend” has it that WN directed DEN employees to come to work no matter what or get fired via link below. This caused even more sick-outs, quitting, etc (I was told this by a SkyWest pilot — add grains of salt). Maybe ramp employees forgot that DEN gets pretty cold occasionally. Maybe management didn’t provide enough warming breaks. Who knows. But it seems interesting that fewer flights would result in worse baggage management. In any event it seems that this set off a bad chain reaction that the ship could not right itself from.

      I flew LGB-DEN over the holidays. Arriving on 12/22 6 PM it was a mess but we got our bags about 2 hours after our flight arrived. Our 12/28 return got canceled on 12/26, able to rebook for late 12/31 into SNA, and then able to rebook for mid-day 12/30 for LGB. Not a great experience but at the same time not horrible either (I fly Air Canada a lot…diminished expectations…).

      https://twitter.com/killares_/status/1608047259635298307

      1. The rumor is that WN’s DEN ramp agents had already been depleted by United (supposedly) using bonuses to poach WN’s people. That happens in tight labor markets.

        Beyond possible short staffing, add in safety concerns due to extreme cold, management that at least some ramp agents perceived (rightly or wrongly) as uncaring and overly strict, plus the stress of IRROPs and heavy pax/bag/flight volumes. Given all that, the rumors of 30-40% of WN DEN ramp agents calling out sick and 200 rampers quitting en masse don’t seem that absurd.

        I don’t know the DEN labor market, but I wonder how much appeal a hard, physical job out in the weather has in the Denver metro area, especially when it starts at $20/hour and requires passing a drug test and background check, and requires a lengthy commute for many workers.

        At the very least, ramp agents deserve respect from companies and pax, and hopefully they’ll get more respect going forward.

        1. I know that DEN’s labor market is super hard to hire in especially for Federal safety sensitive positions since drug testing is requirwd.

          Denver RTD the local bus and train system keeps cutting service because they can’t get enough operators.

          At major airports are gate agents crosstrained to also do ramp work? I know when we were involuntarily denied boarding at my small airport (SBN) the American Airlines contractor supervisor on duty who was trying to get us rebooked and figure out how to write us checks when i stook our ground that we didnt want a vouncher that was barely more money, had to excuse herself because she needed to go out to tarmac to push the plane back and was the only one on duty that day who was qualified to drive the tug.

          1. These days it seems like companies have to pay a premium when they need laborers who can pass a drug test and background check.

            1. The drug test issue is mainly the federal vs. state position on cannabis. As more states legalize recreational pot use at the state level this is going to put more pressure on industries where workers have to pass a Federal-standard drug test.

          2. Contractors, especially at smaller airport like SBN, are crosstrained to do both ramp and gate functions. In Southwest’s case, if the station is staffed by mainline employees, they cannot be crosstrained, as the work fall under two separate labor contracts. A gate agent couldn’t even wingwalk an airplane without it resulting in a grievance.

    3. Eric – I think the problem is that requires the airline to know just how bad things are. It sounds to me like the crew situation was so bad that they really didn’t realize how deep in it they were. Maybe the team at DEN had a clue, but they probably didn’t feel empowered to just go out on their own. It all seems obvious from the outside, but I think it’s a lot harder to see when you’re in the thick of it.

      1. Makes sense. The number of people there at 2:30, at least at C Gates and near WN baggage claim, made me wonder if the fire marshal limits were being pushed, especially seeing the number of cars headed to the airport at such a strange hour.

  4. Cranky – very interesting post. Thanks for a thoughtful review of the situation. It will be interesting to see how Southwest attempts to “fix” their issues, whatever the main point(s) of failure may have been.

    One thing that was very interesting to observe was how the meltdown (er – “operational failure”) of the airline impacted travel specifically in California, which has become very reliant (as you know from the Oakland Challenge) on Southwest for intrastate north-south corridor travel. There were several media mentions of the “commuter” nature of Southwest service in California, and how those reliant on it feel that they were very much let down during the entire week.

    I think this holiday season meltdown – which made it even that much more visible – will serve to convince folks even more that the California High Speed Rail project needs to be pushed to completion, if for no other reason than to provide viable options to air travel, particularly for some specific interstitial trips within the corridor. The sheer number of comments and articles throughout the Golden State mentioning this was interesting to me, especially when some folks were comparing their reliance on Southwest/air travel to their relatives in the Northeast Corridor, who have the additional option of fairly robust Amtrak service essentially between Virginia and Maine (including up to Albany and out to Harrisburg). If Amtrak were able to operate an even more effective railroad, the air shuttles would likely start using Cessnas at this point!

    Several writers in the media also noted Southwest’s efforts to kill Texas HSR, and these mentions were not made in a glowing manner.

    Anyway – once CAHSR is completed, I feel it will certainly change the picture somewhat (not completely, but somewhat) in terms of the north-south corridor travel in California, and for the better, as the additional option of effective high speed rail will allow for aviation to provide the longer-distance movements it is best suited for, as we have seen everywhere else throughout the world.

    1. I love your username! Ironically the 727 was among the loudest birds in the sky at the time!

      1. I know – it’s kind of ironic ;) It was the first type I ever flew on as a child, so I have an affection for it. As I understand it, it was meant to mean that the cabin was quiet as a whisper with the rear-mounted engines. Maybe?

        1. Depends where in the cabin you sat. I remember some very noisy flights on the back rows of a 727… although I was young and it might’ve been a DC9…

        2. You and I have in common that the 727 was my first flight. Eastern Airlines. 1968 when I was 6 years old. LGA- HOU and is my favorite

          1. B727s and all derivatives of the DC-9 were very quiet in the front half of the cabin. The further back you went, the noisier it was due to the rear mounted engines on both types. It is possible that Eastern Airlines used the term ‘WhisperJet” to differentiate from the noisy B707s and the DC-8s that the B727 replaced.

            1. True, and “Whisperjet” sounded better than “slightly less horrifically noisy jet”.

              The loudest non-military plane I’ve ever heard was a DC-9-10 taking off (although I never heard a Concorde.)

    2. Call me pessimistic, but I’d change to that to “if” CAHSR is completed, at least in its present form.

      If I’m reading the most recent report right, the “Interim IOS” from Merced to Bakersfield is now projected to be completed, tested, and in service in either 2029 or 2030 (I’ve seen both dates.) Plowing through the CHSRA 2022 business plan, it looks like they’re projecting San Jose (billed as “Silicon Valley” to make it sound better) to Bakersfield in 2031 from a revenue projection. I couldn’t find a EIS estimate for the full SF-LA route. As far as I can tell, the train sets haven’t even been selected yet.

      I honestly don’t see CAHSR from San Francisco (or even San Jose) to Los Angeles being in service any time before 2035 at the absolute earliest, and I’d put a few million quatloos on that not being until at least 2038.

      I support train expansion in the US and was hoping the California project would be an example to the rest of the US, but the massive cost overruns and delays have put a lot of people off the idea.

      1. Craig:

        I doubt it will ever happen. For true high-speed to operate from SFO to LAX (or thereabouts), it will have to crash through the San Gabriel Mountains. No freight line in its right mind would allow CalTrain the slots it needs without a horrible court fight. Even then, it is clearly doubtful CalTrain would win on appeal. So you have to do your own and boring a hole through a mountain range aint cheap.

        The other problem is that true high-speed capable of competing with airliners would require electrification. The cost of catenary and support structure is outlandish. People’s Exhibit 1: Amtrak’s electrification of the NYC/BOS corridor north of New Haven. That was just plain outrageous.

        My best guess is CalTrain (or whomever) is envisioning Siemens equipment and a 125 mph max. That’s max, not average, which means it is more than five hours to LA, assuming you manage to blow a hole in the San Gabriels.

  5. I was under the impression that interline domestic reaccom got screwed up by DL or UA a few years ago by passing along large increases to poison the well and reduce the reaccom traffic. I don’t know the full story but it’s been talked about on other forums.

    From a technical point of view Southwest only needs the agreement and some basic training. They utilize Amadeus GDS which includes the functionality, it only needs to be activated for WN.

    Question becomes who wants to make an agreement with WN? Would a mandate also include a cap on the price charged or will a legacy see a desperate WN under mandate as a reason to maximize revenue.

    1. flyingcat – That was Delta that jacked up its rates and caused trouble especially with American. They settled that at some point. But this all falls under the voluntary interline world. For anything to really happen, it requires regulation.

  6. It is interesting to note that the industry wide “Cranky Jackass Award For Failing to Operate Properly” opens complaining about AA cancelling 11% and 21% of its operations on two days. Further down there is a chart of a five month period showing days with cancellations higher than 10%, most airlines there have 4 or 5 days of that. (Outliers: DL, UA: 0, AS: 0, F9: 0, NK: 9) Juxtaposed against WN’s 50%+ cancellations over the better part of a week.

    I’m really curious if other airlines will try to get ahead of the regulatory machine and make commitments to interline more, that can quietly be killed in several years.. or if this’ll actually end up in regulation. This might be enough to bring WN to the table on interlining.

    1. My sense here on the Hill is that Secretary Pete wants something they can press release and otherwise make a big deal out of (i e., new regulation).

      1. Oh. I know Secretary Pete wants a big press release with regulations that’ll be in response to this. I’m suggesting that the airlines will do everything they can to forestall that.

        1. The airlines must know that they don’t have any leverage right now. The smart thing to do IMO would be to fold on this (which would probably allow them to have some valuable input into the process) and then reload for a different fight in the future when they might actually have some bargaining power again.

  7. I completely agree with you, CF, that one outcome has to be an industry-wide ability for carriers to reaccommodate on other airlines. Since part of a “meltdown” involves not having enough staff to talk to passengers individually or touch each individual reservation, there also has to be the ability for carriers to “turn on” the ability for other carriers to “pull” a ticket from a “disabled” carrier – even if limited to specific dates and hours of the day and boarding city.
    And other airlines should not have to be forced to accept a low fare if they have to pick up passengers from a “disabled” airline. The point is to get the passenger where they are with the broken carrier picking up the tab – already agreed on – and should separate baggage responsibility and passenger transportation. Part of the reason why Rule 240 has been disliked is because the delivering carrier almost always has a bag deal. They don’t want to give away their revenue from someone else’s passenger for baggage delivery plus take a hit on their own baggage handling stats. There also needs to be a way for passengers to standby on other carriers.
    You are right that Southwest has all the incentive to fix their operations now because the bill will be so high that they could have paid for the system many times over that they needed years ago.
    There will also be a plethora of discounts from Southwest for at least six months as they try to get passengers back – many of which will use the billions of Rapid Rewards points they have been given – on top of the actual cash reimbursement costs.
    The industry should be better because of this. The US has allowed the airline industry to consolidate down to a few carriers and so a “go it your own approach” won’t work anymore. Anyone can have a meltdown; Southwest’s was so bad because they didn’t have the technology to isolate the problems soon enough or the technology to put it all back together without shutting most of the airline down.

    1. Great points Tim, particularly the idea of other airlines being able to pull locators from the disabled airline in order to ease rebooking. If technologically feasible, that’s brilliant!

    2. “And other airlines should not have to be forced to accept a low fare if they have to pick up passengers from a “disabled” airline.”

      I find myself disagreeing with this aspect of any hypothetical mandated recovery plan. I think protections should be extended to “lower revenue” pax if the protecting carrier offers a similar ‘fare bucket’. If necessary, use ATPCO as a historical cross reference.

      Do agree that Rule 240 baggage claims were a long time bane. If the ability lift OA ticketing comes a part of an industry-wide solution, the ability to parse or transmit info for “fee flying” bags vs. “free flying” bags should be incorporated. Perhaps one means of removing last carrier culpability for checked baggage issues.

  8. I’m just trying to figure out why Southwest sent passengers bags onto the final destination even though the original flights were cancelled. Wouldn’t they unload the aircraft and send bags off to baggage claim, or is that not how cancellations work?

    1. Generally once your bags head down the Conveyor of Doom, you aren’t getting them back anywhere but their tagged destination. There’s no way to separate the bags of passengers being re-accommodated from the bags of passengers that are aren’t going anywhere. This would only work on flights where *no* passengers are being re-accommodated. Otherwise, the best thing to do is get the bags to their destination any way possible, even if the passenger isn’t travelling with them.

      1. What happened to the security issue of taking off any checked bags that did not correspond to an actual px on the plane?

        1. Bill – That was only an issue if a passenger tried to separate him/herself from the bag. Airlines could separate bags from passengers since that wasn’t a security risk.

          1. Interesting. The “It’s okay if the airlines separate pax from bags” concept has some flaws and security holes.

            I’m not going to argue it or explain further, just interesting to learn that it’s not a hard and fast rule that pax travel with their checked bags 100% of the time.

          2. And I think positive bag match only applies to international flights, not domestic ones. I don’t recall ever sitting on a plane waiting for departure while they try to pull a bag out of the cargo hold that was checked by a no-show customer, but it happens all the time on my international flights.

            What the logic behind that is I don’t know. Perhaps the thinking is that bad guys don’t target domestic flights.

            1. That seems very odd if it only pertains to international flights. Nonsensical, actually. Hope that’s not the case.

            2. Oliver – I’m not even sure of the status of positive bag match anymore at all. But it was originally an international thing.

            3. Oliver – you are correct – positive bag match only applies to international flights. However, this discussion on baggage handling and the reluctance to transfer pax without bags, while very true, can be resolved with technology that exists today.
              QF and I believe AS has worked on RFID bag tags, and I think DL announced plans to spend $40M on RFID a few years back. But, these efforts appear to run out of steam, especially when airlines look at the generally good baggage handling processes in place. Under those circumstances it appears to be difficult to justify the capital cost.
              Airports also are interested in using RFID, because once you have the system in place it can be used for many other things such as authorizing use of and tracking GSE.
              I’m not as up-to-date on these efforts any more – but perhaps someone else can educate us further?
              Thanks CF – a great post to start off 2023!

            4. I have some recollection that positive bag was required domestically for a while, but only before the TSA was able to deploy checked luggage scanning machines.

              Essentially if the bag was scanned, positive matching isn’t required.

            5. @Nick Barnard is correct in that once baggage scanning capabilities were upgraded, domestic positive bag match went away.

              In a previous position, I was my carrier’s liaison to our local TSA. Without going into detail, there was fairly good logic for continuing PPBM internationally. It will be interesting to see if PPBM international continues as TSA continues to upgrade (as funding is received) the scanning process.

            6. I generally find that if I assume airport security to be mostly illogical, it makes more sense and makes my head hurt far less. :-)

              A favorite example: The TSA considers ice skates (yes, including the sharp metal blades) perfectly fine to carry on a plane, but won’t allow pax bring a partially-melted ice pack a carry on bag unless they claim a medical exception.

  9. This is very simple, and the key word is *resiliency*: if the “free market” (LOL) is incapable of creating resilient airline operations, then it’s time for regulators to step in and FORCE resiliency.

    If we are going to view airlines as critical pieces of national transportation infrastructure (which airlines claimed they were, to a letter, when begging for taxpayer bailout dollars), then they need to be regulated as such.

    This, and all the other airline meltdowns, comes on the heels of the largest industry-specific bailout by taxpayers in American history. Are we truly going to allow every airline to claim that they’re critically essential to the functioning of this country, and then, pockets full cash, thumb their nose at the very taxpayers they’ve begged for money when it’s time to travel?

    It is *literally* a case of capitalism and profits for the company during good times, and socialist bailouts when they face losses.

    It is long past time for regulators and lawmakers to step in and force these companies to deliver on the service commitments that are supposedly so essential to our economy. Clearly these airlines are incapable of fulfilling this responsibility on their own.

    I know our weak, ineffectual regulators don’t want to do this because it would take *actual work,* and not just a TV news hit appearance, but the time has come for government to step in and force airline operational resiliency through mandatory fixed fines per disrupted passenger and bag, with fines increasing until these airlines collectively realize that it will cost MORE to be cheap.

    1. PA – you make some really good points, especially the capitalism/socialism comparison – not unlike the banking industry post-2008. I also understand your frustration with government regulators, but as I’ll bet Bill from DC can tell you, the regulators are pretty gun shy given how the GOP feels about government regulation. That’s not to excuse their glacial response times or timidity, but after years of getting beat up, they probably have a very limited sense of what they can actually accomplish. Not unlike the IT types at WN who got tired of asking for investment dollars to upgrade their systems while the execs were writing big checks to buy back shares!

  10. Thanks for the most common-sense perspective I’ve read on this mess so far. Of course I wouldn’t expect anything less coming from Cranky. I’m a longtime Southwest loyalist but the situation and response have me scratching my head, too. Agree that I hope, at minimum, this opens the door to prevent similar situations in the future and make it easier for customers to get taken care of.
    I wholeheartedly agree with your comments “…try to throw aside union hot takes and narratives” (those have annoyed and frustrated me throughout the whole situation) and “These meltdowns just should not happen, and Southwest’s current ops team certainly knows it and should have carte blanche to fix it. But airlines are complex beasts and, well, shit happens. When it does happen, travelers should have the confidence that they will be taken care of better than they have been up until now.”

  11. I had someone contact me from Southwest regarding a computer security job. They wanted someone experienced with cloud development which I’m not. I wasn’t too impressed with the interview (more of a screening) since the guy clearly knew nothing technical. The pay was unlikely to be competitive with what I was making at the government which doesn’t say much.

    I believe Brett has written about Southwest’s dated computer system for many, many years. We’ll see how much they improve over the next couple of years.

  12. I never have flown SW, never will. I laugh every time I hear low cost airline. From my home airport ORF they are never the lowest fare and often the highest. No interlining agreement is arrogant. Outdated computer systems is bad business. Knowing that and not doing anything about it is again arrogant.

    1. Low cost, not low fare. A LCC isn’t necessarily offering the best fare when all is factored in, but they are trying to have lower operating cost. And WN probably is far from an LCC at this time; they are just a legacy carrier with a different approach to many things.

  13. @CF – bit of a personal? question – not sure, really. But if we book through a travel agent and everything goes haywire, would they be able to reaccomodate on another airline without interline or with interline or is it entirely up to the airline and the travel agent / concierge wouldn’t be able to change it?

    thanks

    1. Sean – That has nothing to do with the travel agent. That’s entirely up to the airline to determine what it will allow. Travel agents can sell in options on other airlines but it is ultimately up to the airline to actually reissue it or in some cases provide a waiver to allow the agent to do it.

  14. I think some DOT standards for what qualifies as “within the airline’s control” are needed. (Within/outside the airlines control are triggers for a lot of things, like hotel rooms, alternate transportation, etc.) There has to be a defined line where they can’t just keep blaming the weather.

    And if I’m the DOT, the wish-list thing I’m going to ask for is a hell of a re-accommodation rule: If a flight is canceled for reasons within the airline’s control, either re-accommodate passengers on another carrier to arrive within X hours of the original time, or pay an escalating penalty up to what the customer *would* have been charged had they bought their ticket just prior to the cancellation. (e.g. If they cancel right before departure, they owe the last-minute fare to everybody.) After all, customers still need to travel, and they’ll need money to do that, potentially lots of money. A simple refund for a bargain fare bought six months in advance is entirely inadequate.

  15. Everyone is picking on Southwest’s technology but I know that they use the finest TRS80 computers around! Seriously, do they still use Braniff’s old IT system?

    1. Angry Bob – No. They retired the Braniff system a few years ago and now use Amadeus for their reservation system. And Amadeus is very capable.
      Their tech isn’t all bad. They just waited too long to modernize so it’s hard to catch up.

  16. I’ve been in favour of a requirement that ALL airlines adopt “Rule 240” ever since I learned what “Rule 240” was.
    In addition I would like to see strong consumer protections at least as good as EC261 as well as a regulation or law making 100% bag matching compulsory on ALL flights.

    1. What do you mean by 100% bag matching?

      No plane leaves until all bags onboard are confirmed to belong the passengers actually on board?

      And/or

      No plane leaves until all bags checked in by passengers on board are also on board?

      And why?

  17. I agree with airlines being forced to reaccommodate on other carriers, but not at fixed rates. Other carriers shouldn’t be forced to take lower margin interline fares because another company is having issues. Make the struggling carrier pay up so the risk vs reward calculations on CapEx changes to make the risk more expensive. Also, while the concept of forced interlining sounds good, it only works when other carriers have load factors to support additional passengers. Other carriers weren’t in a position to handle significant reaccomodations during this peak travel period.

    An airline “not knowing” where their crews are is unacceptable. In today’s age of crew having company devices, why can’t they just share their location (just once, not 24/7) so the airline knows where they are?

    In regards to “bags can only go to the final destination,” why? I understand the bag tag prints out the final destination, but the barcode can be reprogrammed for a different destination (perhaps the origin if the passenger never got on a flight).

    Specifically in regards to WN, they need to revisit their aircraft scheduling and reduce the number of planes flying across the country. When you have routes like SAN-SMF operating 16x daily, they can keep airplanes busy all day just in CA. When CA, AZ, & NV are generally low risk for weather and such and important region to the company, they should be isolating some resources so issues at DEN, MDW, & Florida don’t impact all aspects of the network.

  18. Anyone know if the Deltas, United and Americans of the airline world are actually interested in interlining with WN?

  19. BOB and Andrew inherited this IT mess from GK and MV.
    BOB has said from Day 1 in February when he officially became CEO that WN made a huge mistake in the last decade not investing in the technology to give the employees they cutting edge tools for this day and age to do their Jobs.
    Job one He removed MV and promoted AW.
    Andrew is the Airline nerd of nerds. He is tactical and super smart on How airlines can run efficiently. It’s completely night and day difference from MV.
    Both BJ and AW are Herbish in away where they ask where are we sucking at and how can we improve and are willing to listen to the employees on issues. Where GK and MV ruled like BIG BROTHER nothing to see here everything fine we don’t have a problem your the problem.
    On FA Flight crew side They need new FA crew leadership of crews and scheduling departments. Both of the current leader’s are the Yes Women and Yes Man GK era management styles who fail to recognize it’s time to Evolve the operations into 2023 vs it worked in 1970 mentality.
    BJ and AW definitely need to Settle CBA with the Pilots and FA. The pilots are days away from holding a Strike Vote because the Xmas meltdown push them over the edge there done.
    I have High Hopes as a investor they Right the Ship before it takes on anymore water.

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