Professionalism/Southwest Airlines Flight Cancellations of December 2022

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Background[edit | edit source]

All airlines make modifications to flight schedules, including by delaying and cancelling flights. These changes are especially noticeable during major weather events, such as blizzards or hurricanes, when it is too hazardous to fly. Due to their outdated software and inflexible route network, Southwest Airlines regularly delays and cancels flights more frequently than competing airlines.[1] Before December 2022, Southwest Airlines had one of highest flight cancellation rates and one of the lowest flight-on-time rates among major airlines in the United States.[2] Southwest Airlines also experienced mass flight cancellation events in June and October 2021, when disruptions to Southwest Airlines’ flights were significantly worse than that of other airlines’ flights.[3]

Technical Issues[edit | edit source]

Southwest Airlines’ flight scheduling software and computer infrastructure were highly outdated compared to other major commercial airlines.[4] Southwest relied on proprietary software instead of adopting industry-standard software. Their software frequently under-performed and sometimes failed when presented with unprecedented conditions, leaving Southwest personnel to manually schedule flights and handle crew placement[5]. In the years leading up to the flight cancellations of 2022, Southwest Airlines admitted to deferring many important technological improvements in order to save money.[6] The software was often unable to track flights and aircrews, resulting in many cancellations that other major airlines would not have experienced.[5]

Route network[edit | edit source]

Southwest Airlines operates their flights using a point-to-point system, which allows them to fly more shorter flights instead of fewer longer flights and to pick up different flight crews each day.[7] The point-to-point system has contributed to Southwest’s success because they were able to fly more flights than other airlines. However, the point-to-point system fails when there are major disruptive weather events.[8] For this reason, most large airlines switched to a hub-and-spoke system, which is more forgiving when flights need to be rescheduled or redirected.[7] The inflexibility of Southwest’s point-to-point system was a large factor in all of their weather-related mass cancellations.

Criticisms[edit | edit source]

Southwest Airlines has received criticism for their flight handling, most notably from their own crews. The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, or SWAPA, has dealt much of the criticism to the airline, campaigning and holding protests to get Southwest to improve their flight scheduling technology.[9] Other organizations, such as the Transport Workers Union of America and The Union of Southwest Airlines Flight Attendants, have campaigned for similar demands.[10]

Causes and What Happened[edit | edit source]

Snow Storm[edit | edit source]

Starting on December 21st, 2022, a snow storm swept across the western continental United States that left many large airports unable to let flights takeoff or land. In certain cases, airports were placed under a state of emergency due to the severity of the local weather conditions.[11] Several of Southwest's most popular "focus cities" are located in areas of the country most severely impacted by the storm, causing a large initial wave of flights that were cancelled as a direct consequence of the storm.[12]

Impact of Scheduling Philosophy[edit | edit source]

While the point-to-point system historically allowed Southwest Airlines to offer more flights and experience greater financial success, it is not as resilient as a hub-and-spoke model in the face of cancellations and delays.[13] The philosophy allows for a more efficient and cost effective use of all of the planes in the airline's fleet, as long as all of the planes and their crews are able to complete flights on time. The same does not hold true in the event of mass cancellations. As a result of the point-to-point system, the initial batch of delayed and cancelled flights caused a ripple effect of more cancelled and delayed flights.[1] This was due to planes and flight crews not being positioned to service subsequent flights scheduled for a given plane. The dependencies on prior flights reaching their destination and being on time caused a more significant interruption to Southwest's services than it would have to an airline that utilizes a hub-and-spoke system.[13]

Impact of IT and Computer Systems[edit | edit source]

The complexity of scheduling flights, pairing flights crews, and booking passengers for an entire airline necessitates a large computer infrastructure to facilitate necessary tasks for flight operations. Instead of properly maintaining and updating their computer systems, Southwest kept using the same software and systems as they did in the 1990's.[14] While never explaining why, Southwest claimed that updating or replacing these systems would have cost more than maintaining the old infrastructure.[15] Consequently, the flights cancelled from both the storm overwhelmed the software and became one of the main causes of issues with rescheduling according to the airline.[14] Despite the best efforts of the airline to manually reschedule flights, the magnitude and complexity of the crisis left more than 16,000 flights cancelled in late December of 2022.[12]

Responses[edit | edit source]

The response from management during the cancellations was slow and lackluster.[16] For customers and employees, the lack of transparency and responses from management only added to the frustration of the situation. Before the crisis had been resolved, federal regulators began investigating Southwest to determine the causes of the failures and to ensure that customers were receiving the compensation they were entitled.[16] Airline industry analysts claim the entire situation reflects a shift in Southwest's company culture in the last few years and that investments in new technology are long overdue.[17] The airline has since claimed that it is doing everything it can to compensate customers who experienced delays and that it will be making investments into updated technology for company operations.[18]

Aftermath[edit | edit source]

Monetary, Social, and Regulatory Consequences[edit | edit source]

The monetary fallout for Southwest Airlines was severe. For nearly a week, two thirds of all Southwest flights – over 10,000 total – were cancelled.[19] Between refunds, temporary housing, and vouchers for stranded customers, Southwest internally estimated that the incident cost $825 million.[20] This initial expense does not take into account the immediate downturn in Southwest's stock prices, which fell by almost 6% on December 27th, 2022.[21] This immediate dip marked the start of a general downward trend over the next several months, representing millions of dollars in additional losses.

The public reputation of Southwest Airlines also took a substantial blow. Since the incident, guides outlining "What to Do if Southwest Cancers Your Flight" have been published on the internet.[22] Similar information appears on the airlines website, with the company promising hundreds of dollars in vouchers for affected individuals.[23] Bob Jordan, the CEO of Southwest Airlines, said in an apology interview: “I can't say it enough how sorry I am for the impact these challenges have had on our employees and our customers.”[24] These attempts at damage control have not been completely successful as many people affected by the December cancellations have promised to never fly Southwest again, advising friends and family to do the same. With other airlines cancelling a fraction of the flights under the same weather conditions, consumers seem hesitant to trust Southwest Airlines.[25]

The cancellations may also have regulatory implications for Southwest Airlines in the future. Pete Buttigieg, United States Secretary of Transportation, said in a tweet: “Southwest Airlines failed its customers this past week, and our department will continue acting to get travelers what they are owed.”[26] No airline company wants scrutiny from the Department of Transportation, but Southwest in particular could be severely hampered by regulation due to the uniqueness of their point-to-point model. As of April 2023, no such regulations have resulted from the cancellations.

Professional Ethics in Hindsight[edit | edit source]

In contrast to other case studies in professional ethics, the impact of the mass flight cancellations on public health was relatively mild. While Southwest Airlines itself suffered substantially, the airline’s decisions did not cause loss of life, injury, or direct damage to property for travelers. Fairly extensive compensation efforts also helped to mitigate the situation. Management of Southwest Airlines prioritized shareholder profits in their decisions, despite internal concerns and warnings from pilots regarding the scheduling system eventually responsible for the cancellations.[27] Pilots and other professionals chose not to escalate with their concerns, but should they be expected to stake their livelihood when the risk is largely inconvenience to travelers?

Tragedy Averted?[edit | edit source]

While the actual outcome of the dubious decisions within Southwest airlines was mass flight cancellations, the letter from the pilots to management implies that a greater risk was suspected. Pilots wrote: “How far will Southwest 'normalize drift' and continue to allow unacceptable risk to enter the decision matrix? How long will fatigue rates and risk continue to rise.”[27] The questions posed by the pilots seem to indicate that the scheduling failures also represent a safety concern. Even if this threat to public safety is never realized, does this change the responsibilities of the professionals involved?

References[edit | edit source]

  1. a b Lampert, Allison; Singh, Rajesh Kumar (2023-04-20). "Analysis: Southwest network failure raises concerns over system's strength" (in en). Reuters. 
  2. Hickey, Matt Stiles,Christopher (2022-12-29). "How Southwest failed the holidays: Four charts explaining the cancellations | CNN Business". CNN. Retrieved 2023-05-01.
  3. Lazo, Luz (2021, Oct. 11). "Southwest Airlines flight woes extend to Monday as industry scrambles to meet passenger rebound" (in en-US). Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. 
  4. Lin, Belle. "Southwest Meltdown Shows Airlines Need Tighter Software Integration". WSJ. Retrieved 2023-05-01.
  5. a b Alloway, Tracy; Weisenthal, Joe (2023-01-26). "Transcript: Why Corporate America Still Runs on Ancient Software That Breaks" (in en). 
  6. Arnold, Kyle; Walters, Natalie (2022-12-29). "Holiday meltdown exposes Southwest Airlines' technology woes". Dallas News. Retrieved 2023-05-01.
  7. a b Skores, Alexandra (2022-12-28). "Should Southwest Airlines reconsider its point-to-point route system?". Dallas News. Retrieved 2023-05-01.
  8. Goldman, David (2022-12-29). "Why Southwest is still melting down | CNN Business". CNN. Retrieved 2023-05-01.
  9. Arnold, Kyle (2021-08-19). "Southwest Airlines pilots ready to picket over 'frustration' and 'chaos' of summer flying increase". Dallas News. Retrieved 2023-05-01.
  10. Kline, Daniel (2023-02-23). "Southwest Airlines' Flight Attendants, Pilots Call Out the Airline". The Street. Retrieved 2023-04-30.
  11. Goldman, David (2022-12-27). "Why Southwest is melting down | CNN Business". CNN. Retrieved 2023-05-01.
  12. a b Simonetti, Isabella; Eavis, Peter (2022-12-27). "Southwest’s Debacle, Which Stranded Thousands, to Be Felt for Days" (in en-US). The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. 
  13. a b Rodrigue, Jean-Paul (2017-10-30). "Point-to-Point versus Hub-and-Spoke Networks". The Geography of Transport Systems. Retrieved 2023-05-01.
  14. a b Koenig, Melissa (2022-12-27). "Southwest's outdated technology is to blame for travel chaos". Mail Online. Retrieved 2023-05-01.
  15. "What caused Southwest's holiday meltdown? It wasn't just weather, pilots say". Retrieved 2023-05-01.
  16. a b Olson, Emily (29 December 2022). "Southwest cancels another 4,800 flights as its reduced schedule continues". NPR.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  17. Kowitt, Beth (31 December 2022). "Southwest's Biggest Mistake Was Forgetting Its Own Culture". New York Times.
  18. Singh, Rajesh Kumar (2023-02-13). "Southwest working on updates, upgrades to technology -CIO" (in en). Reuters. 
  19. Cramer, Maria; Levenson, Michael (2022-12-28). "What Caused the Chaos at Southwest" (in en-US). The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. 
  20. Chokshi, Niraj; Eavis, Peter (2023-01-06). "Southwest’s Meltdown Could Cost It Up to $825 Million" (in en-US). The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. 
  21. "Southwest Airlines Co (LUV) Stock Price & News - Google Finance". Retrieved 2023-04-30.
  22. Mettler, Lyn (2023-01-12). "Your Rights If Southwest Cancels Your Flight & Compensation You Can Expect". Families Fly Free by Go to Travel Gal. Retrieved 2023-04-30.
  23. "Flight Changes and Cancellations Overview | Southwest Airlines". Retrieved 2023-04-30. {{cite web}}: External link in |website= (help)
  24. "CEO Bob Jordan Provides Update on Taking Care of our Customers". Southwest Airlines Newsroom. Retrieved 2023-04-30.
  25. Simonetti, Isabella; Eavis, Peter; Karlamangla, Soumya (2022-12-29). "Its Reputation in Tatters, Southwest Aims to Resume Normal Schedule on Friday" (in en-US). The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. 
  26. "". Twitter. Retrieved 2023-04-30. {{cite web}}: External link in |title= (help)
  27. a b "Open letter to Southwest Airlines from SWAPA - April 22". Retrieved 2023-04-30.