The Meltdown of Southwest Airlines

Awhile back I wrote a post about 737 Max plane crashes and the management culture at Boeing that was responsible for them. Well, the Southwest Airline meltdown is looking like about the same story. Although right-wing media and David Sirota are blaming Pete Buttigieg, this is really another installment of how bean counters are destroying America.

A full analysis of why Southwest failed so spectacularly the past few days isn’t out yet, but after reading through a number of articles today it appears to come down to Southwest simply failing to invest in its own company.  Instead it prioritized paying the largest possible dividends to stockholders. People within the industry are blaming Gary Kelly, who became Southwest CEO in 2004 and since 2008 has been the Chairman of the Board of Directors. He’s still chairman, although he stepped down as CEO in January 2022. Kelly’s background is strictly in accounting, with no hands-on experience in airline operations. Long-time Southwest employees today are saying that Kelly put other bean counters in charge of everything. The company for the past several years has been very good at squeezing out profits by cutting corners in technology, infrastructure and staffing. And it caught up to them these past few days, big time.

Michael Hiltzik at the Los Angeles Times writes,

“Our internal scheduling software can’t handle massive cancellations,” Michael Santoro, vice president of the Southwest pilots union, told my colleague Margot Roosevelt in an interview. “The company hasn’t invested the money into scheduling infrastructure to support the network they have developed.”

The outdated system is unequipped to handle rerouting involved in hundreds of cancellations, Santoro said. “So pilots are calling in asking, ‘I’m done with this flight — where do I go next? Am I running another plane? Do I spend the night here?’ And pilots are on hold for hours trying to figure out what to do next.”

When the weather is perfect, the software matches crews to planes. “But when there’s a disruption like this storm, our system can’t handle it,” Michael Massoni, first vice president of Transport Workers Union Local 556, which represents Southwest flight attendants, told Roosevelt.

“Southwest loses control because we don’t have 21st century technology. So what happens is chaos. Southwest starts to deal with the problem manually, which is incredibly tedious.”

The scheduling infrastructure, which some say hasn’t been updated in more than 20 years, seems to be the primary cause of the recent debacle, although not the only one.

Matt Stieb, New York magazine:

The main reason that their service collapsed and other companies held on was that Southwest runs what is called a “point-to-point” system, offering more direct flights to smaller destinations without returning to a home base between flights. After the pandemic and its huge shock to demand and labor in the aviation industry, many other airlines switched to the hub-and-spoke model: Airlines route the bulk of their traffic through major cities like Houston or Atlanta, then link out to smaller, final destinations. When demand is normal, the weather is good, and airlines are fully staffed, the point-to-point model is competitive because people love direct flights. But when a polar vortex hits the country on one of the biggest travel weeks of the year — amid ongoing staffing shortages — point-to-point becomes a huge mess.

While hub-and-spoke carriers were able to communicate easily with centrally located crews and cancel individual routes in order to control the damage from the storm, Southwest got snowed in. Crews were scattered at airports throughout its map of destinations; these teams use an antiquated phone system to get their flight assignments and could only wait so long for instructions without running into limits on how long they could go without a significant break — a problem that industry unions have been pointing out for years. “The catalyst was the big storm,” Michael Santoro, the vice-president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, told the Los Angeles Times. “But our internal software can’t handle massive cancellations. The company hasn’t invested the money into scheduling infrastructure to support the network they have developed.”

For many Southwest flights, it was not the weather on Monday that caused the sweeping cancellations as much as the fact that the weather the previous week had dispersed its crews all across the country. Planes that may have been ready to go couldn’t find a full team, resulting in canceled flights; because the point-to-point system is dependent on previous flights getting in on time, the canceled flights multiplied until the system reached the brink of collapse.

The fact that other big airlines didn’t make this same mistake suggests this outcome was foreseeable.

It’s also rich that right-wing media (and David Sirota) blame Pete Buttigieg for not doing enough to prevent this disaster, since the Right is usually blaming government regulation for all the sins of the world. Lax oversight of the airline industry is arguably a bipartisan failure, since it has persisted too long to blame entirely on one party. But then came the Trump Administration, which basically told industrial America to “do whatever you want.” Enforcement fines against major U.S. airlines dropped by 88 percent between 2017 and 2019, it says here, an article published in 2019. So we’re looking at long-term systemic issues here and an FAA that has long has its hands tied. Maybe someday someone will make a persuasive argument that Pete Buttigieg could have done something to prevent the Southwest debacle, but I haven’t seen that argument yet.

You’ve probably also heard that Southwest has not been exactly generous in issuing refunds or giving stranded people meal and hotel vouchers. I expect Secretary Buttigieg to step up on this issue and make Southwest do right by its passengers. If he still has any presidential ambitions, this is his moment to be a hero.

9 thoughts on “The Meltdown of Southwest Airlines

  1. This is clearly all on Southwest not "the government" – the notion that the Transportation Department should have some heavier hand in airlines' scheduling software or routes selection is facially absurd; guaranteed to be ineffective or actually counterproductive.

  2. I imagine Amazon Web Services (or its competitors) would love to sell solutions to Southwest which can scale.

  3. We know that any explanation palatable to the uber right demands nothing that has the slightest offensive odor to the nostrils of capitalists of the golden straw.  Such would be heresy deserving of Gitmo level torture and a death sentence that world make a Cardinal in charge of executions by the Spanish Inquisition wince.  Ergo no MBA must be harmed.

    Southwest stock, a.k.a. LUV might show some weakness and pistol Pete may force them to market stock in the future under the ticker TOUGHLUV.  

    To the guy stranded in the airport for three days while LUV held his baggage and change of clothes hostage, should I send my hopes and prayers to him or those near to him?

    This is one stinking mess, but we all know MBAs have no odor emitting orifices.

    Hell, it's the Rs job to fix the blame.  Let's see how they screw it up again this time.





  4. Fly Southwest!

    For scheduling, we use the Tandy 3000!

    And we communicate by ESPN sneaker-phones!

    Glad I can't fly anymore.

    And if I could, I wouldn't.

  5. The airline industry tests pilots using simulators. They are airplane cockpits with viewscreens where the windshields should be. The planes are completely accurate mock-ups of the model of plane the pilots are rated to fly. The test portion involves throwing problem scenarios at the pilots, mechanical problems largely, which the crew has to react to.

    SO why not do this on a larger scale, where the airline's ability to react to stresses on the scheduling system are tested in simulation by the FAA? (OK. We're back to deregulation.) And, the best source for information re an airline's deterioration might be unions. Make the Dept. of Transportation aware – who is failing, where & how. That would require giving Dept. of Trans. the power to penalize airlines. (Deregulation.)

    I read an open letter from a Southwest Pilot with decades under his belt. This, and a lot of other stuff was known for a long time. 

  6. Sounds like a perfect storm (and I don't mean weather)

    Hub and spoke topology means you only need to have ample resiliency (crews, communication) at a few hubs

    Point to point means you need to have a lot of resiliency everywhere or risk one failure cascading throughout the network, taking everything down. Double plus bad that the crews at these various points have terrible communication,  which translates to no resiliency, amplifying the cascade.

    Real interesting position they're in to both try and stay solvent and make the needed fixes. Would not want to be their CEO. I hope he can find the talent to turn things around.

  7. Deregulation. Is it 1988?

    They can not regulate internet, cable, power companies, guns, airlines, but they can pass laws to enable vigilantes to regulate my uterus, librarians, teachers speech, election poll workers etc. ( notice the femaleness?)

    I just retired from a state job that used a computer system from about 1980. Because some people don't like to spend money on employees or customers.( one of the last things i did was to clear an edit error from 1988 in a case ) Antiquated systems are fine for the rest of us to struggle with as long as a certain class gets what they want: money and power.

    Our society has become ridiculously unmanaged. Management as a noun or verb needs to only be referenced as nonmanagement.


  8. From 2016 3rd quarter earnings call: "During last week's earnings call, Baker [Jamie Baker of JP Morgan Chase] aggressively questioned Kelly[Gary Kelly], declaring, "The impression that investors have is that your priorities at the moment might be somewhat out of order. The impression is that passengers come first, then labor unions, and then shareholders.""

Comments are closed.