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Southwest's structure, outdated technology lead to its travel troubles

Southwest pilots are blaming many of the cancelled flights on a lack of crew assignments and an outdated system.
Posted: 5:56 PM, Dec 27, 2022
Updated: 2022-12-28 11:35:30-05
Winter Weather Travel Denver
APTOPIX Winter Weather Travel Denver
Winter Weather Travel Denver

DENVER — Thousands of Southwest Airlines passengers wereleft stranded all over the country for yet another day after the company cancelled nearly 2,600 more flightsTuesday according to FlightAware.

The airline made up about 63% of the total flights cancelled across the country. Another 680 Southwest flights were delayed Tuesday.

Those headaches are expected to continue throughout the week. FlightAware shows that the airline has already cancelled nearly 2,500 flights Wednesday and roughly 1,160 Thursday.

The company has warned that it will continue cancelling flights until it can get its operations back on track.

“As we continue the work to recover our operation, we have made the decision to continue operating a reduced schedule by flying roughly one third of our schedule for the next several days,” a statement reads.

While the airline has maintained that severe weather caused the problem, pilots and flight attendant unions for Southwest blame a confluence of events for the cancellations and delays.

Southwest pilots are blaming many of the cancelled flights on a lack of crew assignments and an outdated system. The pilots say that the flight attendants are unable to get through to schedulers to get their assignments and so they are stuck at hotels waiting to find out what flight they will be working.

Why did Southwest have more trouble than other airlines?

“Southwest Airlines has imploded. Their antiquated software system has completely fried. Planes are parked. Crews are stranded in the airports with the passengers, volunteering to take the passengers in the parked planes but the software won’t accept it,” an email circulating among Southwest pilots reads.

The email went on to say that crews have also had a difficult time getting through to scheduling to figure out where they need to be and when they are flying out, saying they spent hours on the phone waiting.

They are also having a hard time getting hotel accommodations, so they are sleeping on the floors alongside passengers with nowhere to go.

“Embarrassing is an understatement,” the email reads. “In 24 years, I’ve never seen anything like this. Heads need to roll!”

Denver7 has also confirmed that a plane left from New Orleans to Houston with nearly two dozen flight attendants onboard but no passengers because the airline’s system couldn’t tell them which passengers to take. The pilots say employees are just as frustrated along with the passengers at the company’s response as passengers.

So why is the winter storm affecting this airline more than others? A big factor is the airline’s structure.

Winter Weather Travel Denver
Agents deal with travelers in need of ticketing services at the Southwest Airlines check-in counter in Denver International Airport, Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Major airlines like Delta and United use a spoke-hubs system where they have hubs in big cities like Chicago and Denver and connect many of their flights through them for efficiency. The airlines have been relying on this model for decades.

Southwest airlines, meanwhile, relies on a point-to-point system. This is where the airline doesn’t have a hub or centralized city to send flights through but sends them from one destination to the next and so on before ending up in its original location.

The model was a disrupter for the airline industry as a whole when Southwest began using it, resulting in cheaper tickets for passengers.

“It maximizes the utilization of the airplanes because airplanes, when they're on the ground aren't making money,” Steve Cowell, an aviation expert, shared with Denver7. “A point-to-point system, when it's working well is going to lower your costs.”

Steve Cowell, an aviation expert demonstrates how Southwest's model is different than other airlines.

The downside of this structure is that when a major storm hits, while the other airlines can quickly adapt flights through their hubs, many of Southwest’s planes and crews were stuck, causing a cascading effect.

“Our operations like dominoes, once that one domino falls, all the other dominoes follow. Because even if you have a flight leaving from a good weather station, it might have been a plane or a crew that was coming from one of those stations affected by the weather. Therefore, it's going to affect everywhere that Southwest Airlines flies too,” said Lyn Montgomery, the president of the Transit Workers Union Local 556, which represents Southwest employees.

Even with the headaches, Cowell doubts that the airline will significantly change it structure.

Another major factor in the travel troubles for the airline: outdated technology. Aviation experts say many of the systems used by the airline date back to the 1990’s and have not kept up with the times.

“Our IT infrastructure for our scheduling software is vastly outdated. It can't handle the number of pilots flight attendants that we have in the system,” said captain Michael Santoro, the vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilot Association in an interview with CNN. “They don't know where we are, then airplanes are, and it's just, it's frustrating for the pilots, the flight attendants, and especially our passengers, we're tired of apologizing for Southwest.”

Santoro went on to say that the airline has had a meltdown once a year for the past several years in a row, though never to this scale.

Despite this, Cowell says he still has faith in the airline and believes this was a one-off. He hopes with some updated technology the airline will be able to get itself back on track and continue offering affordable flights for passengers in the future.

“An investment in the infrastructure is going to help them maintain their efficiency. But it's also going to help them to schedule in advance of major issues such as weather,” he said.