The Southwest Airlines Debacle – What Really Happened

On Thursday, Dec. 29, 2022, at Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake City, a bag that was not claimed at the Southwest Airlines baggage claim was being searched for by an employee of Southwest Airlines. The airline’s operations were severely affected by a winter storm a few days ago, resulting in the cancellation of an additional 2,350 flights. Southwest Airlines is currently making efforts to recover from the ongoing disorder in their schedule. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Apart from Southwest, the remaining prominent airlines have resumed operations. Following a week of intense winter conditions that caused significant disruptions to holiday air travel throughout the United States, Southwest has cancelled approximately 15,700 flights since the onset of winter weather on December 22, surpassing the cancellations made by other airlines. Overall, this has been the case.

Southwest performed very poorly, yet they have done a subpar job of explaining the reasons behind their poor performance. The media has effectively reported on the consequences for passengers.

Typically, for travelers who are not flying, there is a significant advantage in using point-to-point flights from major metropolitan areas as they eliminate intermediate stops. This is in contrast to the ‘hub-and-spoke’ model employed by other major carriers such as United and American, where planes fly from smaller cities to a central airport before passengers change planes. In the point-to-point model, each flight is a direct journey, connecting the origin and destination through a non-stop flight. Southwest Airlines follows the ‘point-to-point’ route model, and here is some coverage on this topic from the New York Times.

Dallas may fly a plane the following day and then stay overnight there. Then, San Diego flies the plane. A plane starting in Richmond, Virginia might fly to Chicago, where most passengers get off. Southwest actually operates a point-to-point-to-point model. This is incorrect.

Southwest claims to operate in a point-to-point manner, but the reality is that their major connecting airports include Atlanta (ATL), Baltimore/Washington (BWI), Chicago Midway (MDW), Denver (DEN), Houston Hobby (HOU), Nashville (BNA), Oakland (OAK), Phoenix (PHX), and St. Louis (STL). Despite not officially referring to it as a hub-and-spoke model, flights passing through these cities essentially follow that structure due to the high volume of incoming and outgoing flights.

Hub-and-spoke offers greater flexibility

Several outlets have reported that hub-and-spoke models are more flexible. Thus, operating airlines could recover more quickly if this model had more flexibility. It is true that a model must consider many different potential origin-destination pairings, as well as other constraints such as availability, staff policies, airline regulations, federal rules, union speed, distance, and the number of flights a plane can fly. This is a very complex routing problem.

Cancellations of a series of linked events can result in a system where negative consequences can occur with other models. The only ones affected are passengers on routes between Cincinnati, Ohio and Richmond, Virginia, when something goes wrong – if there is a flight between these two points, the simplicity of a direct flight is disrupted. However, when it comes to recovering from something bad happening, resilience is more important than maximizing profitability. Point-to-point or hub-and-spoke is better than point-to-point-to-point. But the main point is to consider all options in order to maximize resilience, not just profitability.

What occurred?

As soon as I heard how much worse Southwest was performing than their competitors, I knew there was a problem to be had with IT.

Southwest’s system was unable to keep track of its pilots and crew members, which led to operations being crippled and resulted in the cancellation of many flights.

The entire sequence deteriorates and the snowball begins to roll if this section of the distribution network is not functioning. Ramp workers assist with aircraft parking and luggage handling. A remarkably large amount of absences among ramp workers hindered ground operations in Denver. However, it was more than just that.

The recent days we’ve witnessed a meltdown that could have been averted or lessened if airline managers had better planned for change. The Union issued a statement, saying that Southwest Airlines needed to change its model from “point-to-point” to a better planned one. The ground workers at Southwest Airlines, who are represented by TWU Union, are not willing to blame their people.

In order to safeguard its ground crews, the airline must take additional measures. Individuals should have the ability to alternate between being outside in the cold and taking breaks. It is unreasonable to expect workers to remain outdoors for long periods of time during severe weather conditions. Some individuals have suffered from frostbite in the past week, and many are falling ill. Our employees work diligently and are committed to their jobs, but a significant number have been compelled to work excessively long hours, ranging from 16 to 18 hours, throughout this holiday season. Ground workers require greater support. The human aspect also needs to be taken into consideration. It is unrealistic to schedule flights as if every day is sunny with moderate temperatures and a gentle breeze when faced with sub-zero temperatures, strong gusts of wind, and ice storms.