It’s Thursday. The Christmas storm that dumped several feet of snow across most of America was mostly over on Monday. Yet Southwest canceled 2,300 more flights today, well after rivals resumed normal service.
Here’s why Southwest is taking so long to get its operations back on track: Southwest was unlucky with the location of the storm and its timing. The company also has a unique operating model, focused on smaller planes to small towns, that failed spectacularly when America entered a deep freeze and was blanketed in snow. And outdated scheduling technology has left Southwest scrambling to match crew with planes.
The airline deliberately cut its flight schedule by two-thirds this week to reset operations, which CEO Bob Jordan compared to reassembly of a giant puzzle. Southwest aims to resume normal service by the end of the week.
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The storm hit Chicago and Denver hard, where Southwest has two of its biggest hubs — Chicago Midway Airport and Denver International Airport. And the so-called “tripledemic” has swept across America, leaving people and their families – including Southwest workers and their families – sick with Covid, flu and RSV.
Southwest said before last week’s storm, staffing levels at Denver Airport had become so low that it adopted “operational emergency” staffing procedures. Denver quickly became one of the biggest cancellation problems in the country.
Although Southwest says he was full for the holiday weekend, the illness makes it difficult to adapt to the increased stress of the system. Many airlines still lack sufficient staff to recover when events like bad weather cause delays or flight crews maximize the hours they are allowed to work under federal safety regulations.
Southwest’s schedule includes shorter flights with tighter turnaround times, which caused some of the problems during the storm. Unlike its rivals, which operate with a hub-and-spoke model, Southwest prides itself on a point-to-point business strategy that allows passengers to travel directly between smaller markets.
“We don’t have the normal hub like other major airlines,” Captain Mike Santoro, vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, told CNN on Tuesday. “We are flying a point-to-point network, which can put our crews in the wrong places, without planes.”
United, American and Delta generally fly from small markets to hubs, forcing passengers traveling between small cities to change planes. But this model has the operational advantage of getting crews and aircraft quickly from the hub to where they are needed.
Southwest’s “point-to-point” model involves aircraft flying back-to-back routes and picking up crews at those locations.
“When they have cancellations in one area, it really ripples because they don’t necessarily have their crews and pilots in the right positions,” said Jeff Windau, principal equity research analyst for Edward Jones. “They just stretch from town to town, and when that gets disrupted it’s very difficult to get operations to run smoothly again.”
Santoro said Southwest’s collapse was the worst disruption he had seen in 16 years with the airline.
Southwest’s outdated scheduling software couldn’t keep up with the constant changes and quickly became the main culprit for cancellations once the storm passed, according to a transcript of a call Southwest chief operating officer Andrew Watterson said. conducted with employees that was obtained by CNN from an aviation source.
Watterson explained that Southwest crew planners have been hard at work establishing a new schedule, matching available crew with ready-to-fly planes. But the Federal Aviation Administration strictly regulates when flight crews can work, complicating Southwest’s planning efforts.
“The process of matching these crew members to the aircraft could not be handled by our technology,” Watterson said.
Southwest ended up with planes ready to take off with an available crew, but the company’s scheduling software was unable to match them quickly and accurately, Watterson added.
“As a result, we had to ask our crew planners to do it manually, and that’s extremely difficult,” he said. “It’s a long and tedious process.”
Watterson noted that manual planning left Southwest to build an incredibly tricky house of cards that could quickly crumble when the company hit a snag.
“They would make great strides, and then more disruption would happen, and it would destroy their work,” Watterson said. “So we spent several days where we were close to fixing the problem and then it had to be reset.”
By cutting the company’s flights by two-thirds, Southwest should have “more than enough crew resources to handle this volume of activity,” Watterson said.
Southwest says it is confident it will resume normal operations soon. It has just 39 cancellations scheduled for Friday, according to flight tracking site FlightAware.
Mike Santoro told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday that pilots were told the airline was planning a “nearly full schedule on Friday.”
But now the company is facing an investigation from the Department of Transportation and Denver Airport.
Wall Street expressed concern that the debacle could cost Southwest. Investors sold the shares, wiping out $2 billion in market value from the company’s shares in a week. The airline’s stock price rebounded nearly 3% on Thursday, but remains down about 9% since the December 23 closing price, just before the mass cancellations.
– CNN’s Ross Levitt, Greg Wallace and Alicia Wallace contributed to this report