South West Airlines hopes to end a week-long debacle and bring back nearly 4,000 flights on Friday as it ponders how to prevent a repeat of one of the worst operational disasters in its history.
After canceling more than 15,700 flights over an eight-day period since December 22, the Dallas-based carrier said Thursday it finally had pilots, flight attendants and planes in place to return to a normal schedule on Friday. To make this possible, the company said it had to close two-thirds of its flights between Tuesday and Thursday to stem a cascade of cancellations that was intensifying daily and leaving millions of passengers stranded over the holidays. Christmas.
Leaders blamed the problems on bad weather and an “upgraded” crew reprogramming technology system who couldn’t keep up with the task of reassigning thousands of pilots and flight attendants after wintry weather hit major bases in Denver and Chicago.
But on a media call Thursday, CEO Bob Jordan, COO Andrew Watterson and other top Southwest executives were at a loss for answers about whether or not another meltdown might happen again.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in 35 years in terms of the impact on the network, the level of transactions, the complexity of solutions, all of those things — none of those excuses,” Jordan said on the call. . . “But there will be priorities that will flow from the response to that because it’s not something we want to happen again for our customers or for our employees.”
South West leaders do not know exactly how many passengers will have to be accommodated in the next few days because the level of disruption was so profound that many chose other means of transport, bought expensive last-minute flights on other airlines or missed their holidays altogether because the outage lasted more than a week and extended over the Christmas weekend.
About 2.3 million passengers were affected during the collapse.
“We don’t know how many people still have to travel,” Watterson said. “It depends on who still wants to travel, so to speak. And so easily the first five days of the year, I can see there is room for people if they need to travel.
It wasn’t until late Wednesday that Southwest even informed employees, many of whom are still stuck in hotel rooms away from home, that it would attempt to reset the flight schedule on Friday. Southwest notified its customers Thursday morning, then released it to the public later that day. Southwest has also put tickets back on sale for Friday and the weekend after halting sales earlier in the week to prevent those reservations from being canceled and provide space to move the pilot and flight attendants.
Southwest has spent the past two days developing a plan to get pilots and flight attendants back in position to resume the trips they had originally planned before the collapse. Cutting around 2,500 flights a day has given the carrier the resources to track down flight attendants and pilots scattered across the country and develop a strategy to end the cascading problems.
With automated pilot and flight attendant reassignment systems unnecessary, Southwest formed a group of about 1,000 employees to help manually re-schedule crew members, calling them individually, Watterson said.
After going through this series of weather and operational disruptions, Watterson said the company can reapply this process in the event of another outage.
Otherwise, it will take years for airlines to completely reimplement new technological crew scheduling systems.
“It’s just a big, complicated project,” Jordan said. “It’s not meant to be an excuse; it’s just a fact.
“I think a discussion about that will be what we can do, certainly, in the critical areas of the plan to accelerate that and accelerate that development.”
The company is working to upgrade and replace older technologies, but it takes time, he said.
“We have a very big infrastructure spending plan every year — a capital spending plan and technology and other areas, but a lot in technology,” Jordan said. “And the systems are complicated. We have legacy systems in some cases. And it’s just a period of time it takes to get through these replacements. These are therefore multi-year projects.
Jordan did not respond The Dallas Morning News maintenance requests.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg sent a letter to Jordan on Thursday asking the company to take care of customers financially burdened by travel disruptions.
“These front-line employees are not responsible for errors at the management level,” Buttigieg wrote in the letter. “I hope and expect you to obey the law, follow the steps outlined in this letter, and provide me with a quick update on Southwest’s efforts to right the customers it has. wronged.”
And after meeting with representatives from three of the company’s unions on Wednesday, Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas, and Jake Ellzey, R-Arlington, released a joint statement Thursday that said, in part:
“There has always been strong bipartisan support in Congress for the growth of Southwest Airlines…
“However, it is clear that for some time Southwest has taken unacceptable risks and tried to get by with an unacceptable margin of error – both in personnel and in technology – and that this crisis was at the both predictable and avoidable.
“The payment of hundreds of millions in dividends to shareholders and healthy earnings in the first three quarters of this year clearly show that Southwest can afford to address the current issues, but has chosen not to.” They challenged Southwest leaders to fairly compensate passengers and take action to prevent future meltdowns.
As customer cancellations piled up with mountains of luggage at airports across the countrySouthwest Airlines has tried to communicate to customers that it plans to “honor reasonable requests” for reimbursement of hotels, food, transportation and even tickets on other airlines.
“We have informed customers that if we cancel their flights, they are eligible for a full refund,” Chief Commercial Officer Ryan Green said. “If they were to make alternate arrangements for their trip, we will reimburse customers for those travel costs. We will ship a customer’s bag to them at no cost to them. And these last days, we have set up websites to make this as easy as possible for our customers.”
The company would assess reimbursement of the costs of other extenuating circumstances related to flight disruptions, he said.
However, Green acknowledged that there are complications, such as determining reasonable refund requests and determining how long it will take to process all requests.
“In reality, it’s going to take us several weeks here to get back to customers,” he said. “We are working as diligently as possible and automating as much as possible to process them quickly. But our goal is to solve this problem as soon as possible. »
Southwest canceled just 39 flights for Friday as of noon Thursday, according to Flightaware.com. It has canceled more than 2,000 flights every day this week since Monday.
Southwest Airlines Pilots Association president Casey Murray said the carrier spent Wednesday trying to get crew members back to their home airports so they could be dispersed Thursday and be in place to start flying. fly regularly Friday.
“The hope is to start fresh on Friday with everyone in the right place,” Murray said.
While Southwest was only operating about 1,500 of its 4,000 scheduled passenger flights this week, it also made 104 “ferry flights” on Thursday just to move crew and planes around the system to be ready for Friday, Watterson said.
Southwest plans to offer nearly 4,000 flights a day over New Year’s weekend as millions of travelers seek to get home, to college and to work after the holidays.
Union leaders have blamed airline executives for letting the company’s technology fall miserably behind the demands of running such a complex operation.
In the memo, Watterson said they plan to place pilots and flight attendants on flights they were originally scheduled to fly instead of trying to rebuild assignments from scratch.
“Customers want to steal what they originally purchased, so following that schedule actually requires the fewest changes and is the least disruptive,” Watterson said.