Three Months Later, Southwest Has an Action Plan


It was the end of December when Southwest had its latest and worst in a string of meltdowns that dated back several years. After the dust settled, the airline said it would do a thorough review and have third-party Oliver Wyman put together a report as well. Once the work was done, the airline would report back. That Action Plan has now been put forward.

Southwest has broken down its plan into three different segments: Improve winter operations, Accelerate operational investments, and Enhance cross-Team collaboration. In case you’re wondering, that is not a typo. “Team” is supposed to be capitalized thanks to the goofy lingo that Southwest uses to describe itself.

A broad look at the plan suggests that the airline is in fact doing something to combat the issues it faced in December. Many of the points are things that the airline has been saying since the event happened while there’s at least one point that seems to contradict earlier statements. Overall, I don’t really see anything here that would suggest the Oliver Wyman report gave some sort of extra boost to what the airline already figured out on its own. That’s a good thing in that it means Southwest was apparently able to figure out the problems with its own staff. That’s a bad thing, because it’s just a waste of money.

So, let’s dive into all of these, shall we?

Improve winter operations

  • Buy more deicing trucks, pads, and ground equipment
  • Add storage capacity for deicing fluid at big airports
  • Acquire more engine covers and heaters to protect airplanes and ground equipment in cold weather
  • Do a better job of informing pilots how much time they have after deicing before they take off
  • Add more employees at airports that might get hit with “extreme cold” which requires giving more frequent breaks
  • Do something about how they handle fuel for ground equipment.
  • Be better at cleaning the ramp to keep ice and snow away

Some of these, like getting more engine covers, the airline had identified very early on. CEO Bob Jordan gave that example when I spoke to him in January. The airline also knows that deicing was a real pain point. I’m surprised, however, to see that they haven’t decided to go with closed deicing pods for employees to use. That had been discussed before. The open buckets the airline uses provide better visibility but they also allow employees to spend less time doing their jobs before having to go back inside to warm up.

I also don’t quite understand what they’re doing with fuel on that next to last point. Specifically it says, “We are reassessing our fuel management process for ground equipment to more reliably operate during extreme winter conditions.” I don’t know if that means they need to keep fuel warmer somewhere or if they just need to have more fuel available.

Accelerate operational investments

  • Finished upgrading software to handle crew reassignments on previous problems, not just current ones
  • Add more phone capacity for both reservations and crew scheduling
  • Improve the tool notifying crews of reassignments to allow them to electronically acknowledge the change

That first bullet point is what Southwest settled on as a huge constraint from the very beginning. The airline had not properly been able to pre-cancel enough flying, so it did a lot of last minute cancels. By the time the crew scheduling system caught up, those problems were considered in the past so it wouldn’t bother solving them. That made it impossible to fully catch up. But now, Southwest has implemented the new version of the GE Crew Optimization system which allows it to solve past problems which need to be fixed before current problems can be addressed This alone should have a huge impact on recovery.

That last bullet point, however, is a headscratcher. The crews had said they were unable to get on the phone to accept crew reassignments. Bob explained to me in my January post “we have automatic notification in place [but] it takes a contractual change, I believe to require acknolwedgement.”

If asked for clarification on the contractual issue back then and was told “the collective bargaining agreements for Pilots and Flight Attendants contain scheduling rules that, if altered, would require negotiation with those respective unions.”

But this now suggests that there was a technical issue. Does this mean Southwest has gained approval from the unions to accept it electronically? That seems unlikely barring a new contract for the pilots. Or maybe it was always a technical issue, and they didn’t want to say. Either way, something smells fishy here.

Enhance cross-Team collaboration

  • Put schedule planning under the same leader in charge of the day-to-day operation
  • Create new dashboards to improve visibility into the network
  • Improve ability to better alert when problems arise
  • Create clearer lines of communication between groups

This feels like a throwaway section. The move to have network/schedule planning under COO Andrew Watterson happened before this mess, and the having Adam Decaire who runs network planning take over the ops center seems to have been in motion before this as well. That’s not suggesting it’s good or bad, but just that it was happening anyway. (I do find it to be an interesting model.)

Improving dashboards and alerts and all that, well, yeah. Good idea. I know that happened early in the post-mortem, but it doesn’t feel like this should be a root problem. If so, then Southwest’s systems are even worse than I thought.

Overall, the action plan seems to have some key points that should make a real difference if things get ugly again next winter. Or summer. But with this kind of stuff, only time will truly tell. If Southwest has another operational failure, well, it’ll be time to go back to the drawing board.

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24 comments on “Three Months Later, Southwest Has an Action Plan

  1. I like that you posted this April Fool’s article three days later. Good twist to keep the laughs coming.

  2. The flying public quickly forgets. Wonder how much load factors, have dropped, if any since the meltdown.

    1. The problem is when a consulting firm gets involved, the report is what the company hiring the firm wants to hear & not the truth.

      1. When I was (briefly) in consulting, the partners I worked with referred to this type of project as, “borrowing the client’s watch to tell them the time”.

        Sometimes the client largely knows what needs to be done and/or has already made a decision, but is willing to pay $$$$$ to have a 3rd-party justify the actions or decision, whether to help deflect controversy or to show that the company is “doing all that it can”.

        /To be clear, I don’t mean to imply that something along these lines happened at all with this project, but it’s an open secret that companies often use consulting firms in that way. “No one gets fired for doing what McKinsey told them to” may not always be true, but it’s a classic line for a reason.

        1. This is correct… but consultants can be useful to companies in providing an agnostic, if not truly innovative, perspective since they don’t sit within any particular division or “silo”.

          1. Completely agreed, and great point. :-)

            I think most white collar workers have worked in companies where middle managers focus on “Whose metrics or budget will this hit?” (or something similar) more than they should. Consultants can add a lot of value by helping to resolve problems that are exacerbated by organizational infighting & politics in situations like that.

  3. Sounds like with the FAA having staffing issues in NY and Jacksonville this summer, they should hire Oliver Wynn for their post mortem after the summer meltdowns they wiill experience.

  4. I heard a big issue was that United poached a large portion of SW’s Denver ground crew prior to the meltdown.

  5. I have some friends who work at AA CLT ops, and some of them are sent pre-emptively to DFW or even all the way up to SEA to help with de-icing or other weather related messes. It happens in reverse as well, where PHL crews have come here to help with weather related issues. I recall a few years a go that PHL crews DROVE deicing equipment down the i85 to CLT which I am sure was a long and uncomfortable ride. But that kind of pre-emptive resource sharing makes sense.

  6. Cranky

    Sounds like Southwest failed some basic requirements of, “taking care of the airplanes and ground equipment” during major winter weather events.

    If you don’t have enough aircraft heaters you have to run the APU’s in such extreme events to avoid freezing and stranding aircraft. Sounds like they didn’t.

    Also a BIG basic during such events is keeping all the ground equipment fueled so it can been started and run regularly for periods to keep it in operating condition and to prevent it from freezing. If you can’t put the equipment in doors and without a recurring ground equipment fueling plan the equipment eventually runs out of gas during very long events making matters exponentially worse with useless, snowed in equipment.

    With all due respect to Southwest, it sounds like they actually became “seasoned” by last winter, AFTER 50 years of experience. Yikees.

    1. I’d be really curious to know what systems & processes are in place for apron-side airport equipment at airports in colder climates… Sounds like Southwest may have needed APUs or engine/fuel heaters on some of its tugs etc.

      I’ve read a lot of that equipment runs on jet fuel, not diesel fuel (which, without additional additives or “winter blends”, gels or freezes at temps much higher than jet fuel), but the temps that Denver experienced weren’t too far from the freezing point of regular Jet-A kerosene.

      Even if the fuel were still liquid, however, the properties of the lubricants and metal parts used in the engines may have been such that true “cold starts” were difficult or impossible… That said, this problem shouldn’t have been a surprise to Southwest, and other airlines seemed to be less affected, so the technology and best practices to fix this should not be THAT hard or expensive to implement.

      1. Years ago carriers would run diesel ground equipment with Jet A however the EPA and others put an end to that years ago because of the higher sulphur content in jet A.Standard diesel is now used on ground equipment with suppliers adjusting with winter, summer, etc blends for the areas users.    I suspect the blending had no impact in places like DEN, MDW, LUV and BWI.  Sent from Samsung tablet

        1. Thanks for the info.

          In trucking, early fall cold snaps occasionally catch people off guard, even in areas that see many frigid days in the winter. Definitely have to watch (and plan for) the weather.

  7. Southwest simply played the roulette and believed it could recover from winter ops like it had before – and yet they had multiple winter and summer weather-related mass cancellations in the years before December 2022.
    The simple reason why Southwest has no choice but to do something to fix the problems which existed before this event is because it cost them profitability in at least 2 quarters – a sobering reminder of how costly this event was even as the big 3 are recording profits.
    It is clear that WN still operated like a southern airline even though it has large operations in several cities with significant regular winter weather. This event was a wakeup call to WN that they are a nationwide airline like the big 3 and didn’t have the processes or resources available to operate in severe winter weather.
    Add in that a number of WN “hubs” are at airports such as MDW where the runways are short and there is little operational margin when whether turns bad.

    Southwest will figure this out but their profits will be reduced as they “grow up” their operations – and that is even before the costly pay raises that they will have to pass out in order to keep labor unrest from creeping into the operation.

    1. This reminds me of a series of operational struggles we had in the winter of ’93 when i worked as an intern in the ops department in KLM. Our intra-europe operation got thrown into chaos when a surprise winter storm hit AMS, and frozen fuel was an issue then too. We were forced to move the fuel into an area where we usually stored catering, rendering an entire pallet of stroopwaffles inedible.

      1. > We were forced to move the fuel into an area where we usually stored catering, rendering an entire pallet of stroopwaffles inedible.

        Wow. If KLM had to sacrifice stroopwaffels for the greater good, it truly was an awful storm.

  8. I appreciate that immediately after the meltdown Southwest pilots and flight attendants, from SWAPA and TWU556, were quick to blame management. Now they have the chance to amend their contract to make sure this doesn’t happen again, and the CEO isn’t sure if they will do the right thing. I guess we just figured out it wasn’t all managements fault.

    1. As long as Gary Kelly is pulling the strings behind the curtain, Jordan won’t be able to do the right thing,

  9. Cranky, being in crew scheduling at a different airline, I have a feeling how they worked out the acknowledgement issue.

    I believe the CEO when he said part of it is a contractual issue. Crew contracts do spell out what is considered an “acknowledgement” when being assigned or reassigned in the operation. I don’t know what Southwest’s contractual language looks like but based on what Bob Jordan said, I’m willing to bet that crew scheduling is required to make positive contact with a crew member for them to be considered advised of their schedule changes. At my airline, there are some situations where positive contact is required and other situations where leaving a message is sufficient and the crew member is able to self-acknowledge online.

    So how do they solve this? The company and the union may have (or are in the process of) negotiating a Letter of Agreement. For the uninitiated- LOA’s allow small amendments to a current contract without renegotiating the whole thing. Allowing crews to acknowledge without contacting scheduling would seem like an easy thing to draft in an LOA. Now, I do not know for sure if this is what happened but that is how you would solve such a contractual issue.

    1. Normally I’d agree that an LOA would be fairly straightforward, but the pilots are pretty militant right now in demanding a contract. I would be surprised if they were willing to do any LOA before there’s a new deal.

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