Southwest Airlines Unveils System Upgrades Amid Efforts to Ward Off Future Meltdowns

Janice Hisle
By Janice Hisle
January 16, 2023Businessshare

Southwest Airlines has created an “early indicator” system and has taken other steps in its efforts to ward off a future operational meltdown.

In a Jan. 13 internal memo obtained by The Epoch Times, Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan updated employees about the actions that company leaders have taken so far.

But one of Southwest’s largest unions, which represents the airline’s 10,000 pilots, expressed frustration over the company’s handling of the operational crisis that struck in late 2022, stranding tens of thousands of passengers over the holidays.

A day after Jordan’s message, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) sent a notice to its members, reporting stalled contract talks. The union also said that the company so far hadn’t involved SWAPA in the post-crisis analysis.

However, in his message, titled “The Path Forward,” Jordan said that union leaders’ input would be sought in Southwest’s efforts to recover.

The airline “carries more air travelers flying nonstop within the United States than any other airline,” its website says.

While a thorough review will take months, the Dallas-based company has taken some immediate steps.

Southwest has set up a new “dashboard that closely monitors operational health,” Jordan said. Based on that monitoring system, if certain “operational thresholds” are reached or exceeded, the system will send out an alert.

The memo doesn’t disclose what specific data the dashboard is supposed to track.

Southwest also engaged a third-party global aviation consulting firm, Oliver Wyman, for “a detailed assessment” into what went awry in December 2022, Jordan said.

southwest airlines
Stranded Southwest Airlines passengers look for their luggage in the baggage claim area at Chicago Midway International Airport in Chicago on Dec. 28, 2022. (Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images)

The airline canceled more than 16,700 flights after a powerful, large winter storm. But while other U.S. airlines rebounded quickly, Southwest’s crew-scheduling systems couldn’t keep pace with the scheduling changes. Because of internal systems problems, the company lost track of its flight attendants and pilots, employees say.

Jordan’s memo described efforts intended to correct those deficiencies.

The company will add “supplemental operational staffing,” extra workers who can be activated “at the first sign of a potential workload backlog,” Jordan said. In addition, the company is working on upgrading systems used when large numbers of schedule changes are needed for flight crews.

Jordan’s memo states that the company’s board of directors appointed an “operations review committee” to work with him and other leaders. He also pledged that frontline employees and union leaders would “share perspectives and feedback” as part of the company’s lessons-learned process.

Review Expected to Last Months

But in a Jan. 14 message sent to its members, SWAPA said Southwest Airlines officials have shown “no interest in using SWAPA’s solutions” to prevent widespread systems failures. SWAPA produced a detailed, chart-filled analysis of the events culminating in the meltdown.

And, the union reports, contract talks between SWAPA and Southwest haven’t been going well.

“Three years into negotiations and in the wake of the worst meltdown in our history, the Company continues to hold your Union at arm’s length,” SWAPA said.

In addition, the union contends that aspects of the current contract played a role in the operational chaos.

In his memo, Jordan said he was confident that the right people are involved in this “comprehensive review of the events.” He said the company has rededicated itself to upgrading “processes and tools to better manage the airline in all operating environments.”

Following the meltdown, each department has been asked to “identify immediate measures” to improve the company’s management of significant disruptions, according to the memo.

These include using “newly developed automation for refunds and bag recovery,” and buying more engine covers “to keep equipment ready to operate in extreme weather and reduce aircraft downtime.”

Southwest has also been performing a “top-to-bottom” review of its aircraft de-icing procedures and equipment, along with analyzing the decision-making processes for cancellations.

CEO Offers Reassurance

Southwest Airlines staff tend the counter in the check-in area, at Los Angeles International Airport on Dec. 28, 2022. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

The airline typically has spent $1 billion a year on upgrades, Jordan said, and “will be re-evaluating” how much is spent for 2023.

He offered reassurance to employees who expressed concern about the company’s future as well as their own futures. “We continue to have a solid plan for 2023,” he said, “[and] a very strong balance sheet with ample cash.”

However, in a government-required filing, the airline estimated that the December 2022 meltdown could cost the company up to $825 million.

The airline also faces two separate lawsuits from shareholders and customers who allege improper practices. Both lawsuits seek class-action status. If courts grant those requests, each of the lawsuits could potentially represent many plaintiffs.

30,000 Refunds per Day

Meanwhile, Jordan said that Southwest has updated the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) on the airline’s efforts to help meltdown-affected customers.

Calling the airline’s recent performance “unacceptable,” DOT launched an investigation. DOT also said that Southwest, which had abnormally high cancellations and delays during Dec. 21–29, 2022, was responsible for the travel disruptions that affected customers after Dec. 24.

Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, said that her committee also would investigate Southwest’s performance.

In a Jan. 4 statement, Cantwell said the committee would hold hearings “in the wake of Southwest Airlines’ massive operational and customer service failures.” The hearings are intended “to examine how to strengthen consumer protections and airline operations,” she said.

She has also spoken to Jordan and to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg about the problems, she said.

Jordan has repeatedly apologized for the company’s failures and said the airline was committed to doing right by its customers.

In his memo to employees, Jordan said, “We’re processing up to 30,000 reimbursements a day.”

He noted that more than 92 percent of refund requests had been completed.

In addition, 98 percent of customers’ missing baggage has been “delivered or have a delivery plan with the customer,” he said.

From The Epoch Times

ntd newsletter icon
Sign up for NTD Daily
What you need to know, summarized in one email.
Stay informed with accurate news you can trust.
By registering for the newsletter, you agree to the Privacy Policy.