Saturday, December 24, 2022

Southwest Airlines Resumes Normal Flight Schedule After Mass Cancellations Stranded Travelers

The Wall Street Journal
By Alison Sider and Dawn Gilbertson
Updated December 30, 2022 3:47 pm ET

Southwest Airlines worked to return to normal operations Friday, more than a week after the start of an unprecedented meltdown that stranded passengers and drew fire from regulators.

The Dallas-based carrier’s leap from operating 1,600 flights Thursday to roughly 4,000 on Friday more than doubled the size of its operation overnight. The expanded schedule represented a major test of how well Southwest has managed to put itself back together following a winter storm and subsequent operational problems that led it to cancel nearly 16,000 flights.

Executives said Thursday that they believe the airline is up to the task. 

“We’re prepared and we’re ready to do that with minimal disruption,” Chief Executive Bob Jordan said during a call with reporters. Earlier in the day he told employees: “I’m confident, but I’m also cautious.”

As of 2 p.m. ET, Southwest had canceled 43 flights on Friday, far below the roughly 2,500 flights the carrier canceled over several days earlier this week. The vast majority of those had been cut earlier in the week. Overall, about 140 flights across airlines flying to, from or within the U.S. had been canceled Friday, according to FlightAware.

A winter storm that blasted much of the country with extreme cold, snow, wind and ice ahead of Christmas disrupted many airlines’ flights for several days. As rival carriers rebounded, Southwest’s operations continued to deteriorate, and the airline this week deeply slashed its schedule for three days in a bid to stabilize its operation and get planes and crews into the right places.

In Phoenix, where Southwest has a big presence, the security checkpoint wait for the airline’s gates was already 10 minutes and growing at just after 4 a.m. local time. Earlier in the week, lines had been nonexistent as Southwest slashed flights to get back on track.

On Southwest flight 3579, which departed at just after 5:00 a.m. for Denver with fewer than half of its seats filled, the lead flight attendant told passengers more than once that the airline was grateful to have them on board as it resumes its regular schedule.

“Obviously today more than ever, thank you,” he said. “We’re back.”

Southwest executives have attributed the airline’s struggles to the breadth and severity of the storm, which affected dozens of cities where Southwest flies including Denver and Chicago, where many of the airline’s crews are based.

With so many people and planes out of position last weekend, executives have said the scheduling system Southwest uses to reconstruct crew schedules after storms and other events became overwhelmed by the volume of changes required. That left airline staff to try to manually match up available crew and planes, in what executives and union officials have said was an inefficient and laborious process. 

As it works to resume normal operations, Southwest faces heightened scrutiny from regulators and lawmakers who have said they are closely monitoring the airline’s response to the crisis.

Southwest Chief Operating Officer Andrew Watterson acknowledged the high stakes, telling staff in a memo late Thursday that Friday would be “pivotal,” especially heading into another holiday weekend.

“We started today fragile, so I hope that holds together. But we’ll see,” said Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association union.

Kelsie and Chris Pearson said they were thrilled to be heading home Friday morning on Southwest Flight 4454 from Denver to San Diego. They said they spent an extra week in Minnesota due to two Southwest flight cancellations, one on Christmas Eve and another the day after Christmas.

“I had a nightmare this morning before we woke up that our flight was canceled,” Kelsie Pearson said. Chris Pearson said he took up a new hobby during the ordeal: checking planes on FlightAware, a flight-tracking site, so they could handicap their chances of getting out.

Temperatures are likely to be warmer this weekend versus the arctic blast that swept the country last weekend, a forecaster at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Weather Prediction Center said. Rainfall could move from west to east, with the possibility of more severe weather in the south early next week.

While the airline has said it was already working to upgrade some of its technology and could accelerate some of those investments, executives have said last week’s storm was unique. They’ve said Southwest’s systems can manage through more typical disruptions.

Southwest shares were 0.4% lower in afternoon trading, while major U.S. stock indexes declined about 1%.

As Southwest ramped back up Friday, it continued to grapple with the hit to its reputation among customers and some employees. Southwest frequently touts its customer-service scores and awards, and in the annual J.D. Power North American Airline Satisfaction Study this year, the airline ranked highest in customer satisfaction in the economy/basic economy category.

“We pride ourselves on having a high level of customer service and doing the right thing for customers, and obviously we have fallen short here in this regard,” Southwest Chief Commercial Officer Ryan Green said Thursday.

Southwest also has pledged to reimburse affected travelers, but has shared few details. Executives said Thursday that it could take a number of weeks to process payments for customers looking to be reimbursed for expenses such as hotel rooms and rental cars.

The airline hasn’t yet tallied the total cost, but Mr. Jordan has said the financial impact from the meltdown will likely be significant.

Erika Cada booked her Friday flight from Phoenix to Omaha months ago. Ms. Cada, who said she and two of her children flew on a Southwest flight to Phoenix on Christmas morning with no issues, said she debated rebooking to a later date given all the cancellations this week, but stuck with Friday.

“We waited and today is the day they decided to get back on track,” she said.


  1. This subject is LONG overdue.

  2. Why is it long overdue?
    Do you work there? What information do you have to make such an allegation?

    1. For a few years now, there have been a lot of articles in business journals and newspapers about problems with Southwest's maintenance...including stories about FAA oversight not being up to standards...possible a too-friendly relationship.

    2. It's enough to make me plan to use other airlines when possible until they ARE held accountable.

    3. The same business journals also told you a ponzi crypto schemer in the Bahamas was the next J.P. Morgan. Before that, Theranos... Turns out the stories were press release hype responding to payments made. Very few articles have credibility these days. Negative stories can be bought, too.

      Maintenance truths show up as out of service aircraft and crashes, so when those things aren't happening more at one airline than another in a similar operating scenario, you are being fed bovine squeeze designed for taking down the targeted business.

  3. Statistically, WN is a VERY safe airline. One of the main reasons they retained that level of safety for such a long time was their pilot cadre, who was (largely) selected and trained to be able to handle fast paced operations, sometimes in airports that presented their own set of operational challenges. Because the pilots always flew the same aircraft type and flew it a lot compared to their peers at other airlines, they became very good at operating the 737. A lot of people in the industry refer to this as a cowboy culture, and although I personally disagree with the analogy, to an outsider, the term would seem a good fit. Between the culture and the occasional gifts or cushy jobs, the FAA has long been reputed to be enabling WN's desire to sweep potentially serious incidents and corner cutting practices under the rug - since the airline was statically very safe, why mess up a good thing?

    But now the old school pilots and mechanics are retiring and being replaced by people who may not be quite as proficient. As the average age and experience level of people in safety sensitive positions declines, the statistical safety of the airline should no longer be considered a given. And the operation has grown by leaps and bound. So yeah, cracks are starting to show in the veneer. But at the end of the day, the FAA only responds aggressively to two things: demands from the woke crowd and accidents with a large number of fatalities. So don't expect anything in the relationship between the FAA and WN to change anytime soon.

  4. In recent years, the FAA has introduced a Safety Management System (SMS) approach to air carrier oversight. This emphasizes active risk management by both the carriers and the agency. While regulatory compliance is still required, the new processes lead to collaborative relationships between the regulators and the regulated. Lapses in compliance are dealt with through root cause analysis and proactive corrective action. The need for enforcement is diminished. Used only in dire cases.

    The FAA’S reputation as an agency that only responds to disaster is probably a misnomer. No system is perfect and everyone learns from failures. To be accident proof is to never venture out. No surprise the FAA investigates, analyzes, and responds to accidents with large numbers of fatalities. No surprise the FAA reacts to political demands from the government that funds and enables them. That is how it works.

    The WSJ piece highlights FAA employee complaints/concerns. These must always be taken seriously. Is it possible that some senior Inspectors, who like their Pilot counterparts, are nearing retirement, are not happy with SMS? Hopefully the agency is listening and values the input from these experienced workers. Change is always difficult.

    Meanwhile, Southwest and the US air carrier safety record speaks for itself. There is no safer transportation system in history.

  5. In today’s news, Southwest is unable to complete a large percentage of its daily flights, stranding passengers throughout the country. Weather is a factor, but something is wrong here. Hope they can get it together.

    1. There appears to have been a stealth sickout underway starting in Denver, prompting a "doctors note proof required" email sent to employees on 21 December. The weather event created a multiplier effect on top of the sickout.

      You do have to wonder if Southwest has somehow gotten in the target sights of those who are telling you now to hate that rocket and electric car guy. Maybe Southwest wasn't supposed to survive the travel shutdown from flu and some narrative adjustment is currently underway. Going green will presumably have to include ending some airlines. Great insider trading play for regulators who know what is coming.

  6. The mainstream media regurgitates the same stories amongst themselves over, and over. Most of the stories are so embellished to gain the attention of the mainstream population....and sell advertising therein.

    Aviation professionals would know that Southwest Airlines has never had a fatal accident in their history; over 50 years of operations. A single passenger died onboard a flight when an engine exploded and the hull was punctured, sucking the passenger partially out during depressurization. That's an enviable record.

    Does the business have problems? Obviously. However, without hard evidence, raising the spectre of safety issues because of what you saw on CNN or FOX this week is like housewives and politicians gossiping.

  7. First time we’ve heard from Mayor Pete in months!! Surprised he wasn’t down in the islands with Union Joe celebrating their incompetency! And Mayor Pete, getting the federal government involved in the Southwest issue is definitely NOT part of the answer!!!!

    1. If SWA would just relcoate to chicago from TEXAS we wouldn't hear a word about from that brown hatter.

    2. Not part of the answer? Thanks to the CARES Act, the airline industry in the U.S. is now federallys subsidized. As a tax payer, I'd like the fed to keep tabs on them.

  8. It is obvious that top arrangement is incompetent and needs to be replaced. Who could have imagined a big storm at Christmas? Any competent executive. This was a company failure, not an industry failure. The other airlines recovered. Southwest has gone from the top to the bottom. They need new leadership and new technology now.

    1. Some news sources say that the current executive team have only been in place for a year and inherited the bean counter induced problems (esp. in IT) from the previous executives who were very bottom line driven.

  9. During my flying career, I was employed by three different, huge US airlines. The only one that genuinely cared about the passenger experience was Delta. You could add that Delta values its employees more than most other carriers. It is apparent that SW was using the "cross your fingers and hope nothing bad happens" business model. They were trying to do everything on the cheap (IT, employee staffing, scheduling, etc.), and it all failed at once. You do get what you pay for.

    1. But more importantly, do they participate in DEI? This is especially important for pilots. A few hundred deaths every month or so to have the requirements fulfilled is undoubtedly a worthy goal.

  10. Pretty weak attempt to tie corporate sustainability goals to what happened last week. You could argue that anything Southwest did over the last decade kept them from investing in new technologies, but that wouldn't get the emotional response this article was seeking.