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.