A Southwest Airlines executive faced grilling from Washington lawmakers regarding the carrier’s system-wide operational meltdown that resulted in the cancellation of 16,700 flights and stranded hundreds of thousands of air travellers at the end of 2022.

During a hearing on Washington DC’s Capitol Hill on 9 February, several members of the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation accused the airline of following a pattern of corner-cutting and placing shareholder interests over those of customers. Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, for example, said Southwest has for decades “suffered from complacency and a desperate drive for profits that has placed the needs of Wall Street and the balance sheet above all else”.

Southwest Airlines Boeing 737

Source: Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines “did not have winter operations resiliency” during its end-2022 operational meltdown, says COO Andrew Watterson 

The Dallas-based airline’s operations fell apart during the busy end-of-year holiday period as a severe winter storm disrupted travel across the USA. However, other airlines recovered quickly while Southwest’s crew-scheduling system broke down, forcing it to drastically reduce capacity during peak holiday travel.

Southwest lost $220 million during the fourth quarter of 2022 in part as a result of the $800 million operational disruption. It has issued hundreds of millions of dollars in refunds and travel reimbursements to passengers who were affected by its catastrophic performance.

Early during the 9 February hearing, committee chair Maria Cantwell, a Democratic senator from Washington state, noted the absence of Bob Jordan, Southwest’s chief executive. Herb Kelleher, the airline’s late co-founder and longtime CEO, “would be here”, she says. ”Your CEO didn’t want to show up.” 

Southwest’s chief operating officer Andrew Watterson was left to answer for the airline’s failures. “Let me be clear – we messed up,” he tells the committee. “And I would like to explain to you how we messed up.”

Heading into the busy 2022 holiday travel season, the Dallas-based discount carrier “did not have enough winter operations resiliency, from where and how we de-ice aircraft to the cold resiliency of our ground support equipment and infrastructure”, he says.

Then, high rates of cancellation in Denver and Chicago – where a quarter of Southwest crews are based – caused a widespread displacement of flight crews.

“At this point, the disruption changed from a weather event that all airlines experienced to the crew event that was unique to us,” Watterson continues. “When I say ‘crew event’, it has nothing to do with the behaviour of our employees; it’s to do with how we manage the crew network.”

As the winter storm moved east, dozens of airports “of all sizes” experienced similar disruptions, leading to a cascade of flight cancellations that “overwhelmed our crew-scheduling processes and technology”, he says.

Watterson emphasises that Southwest’s leadership believes the root cause of the meltdown was not technology but “how we handled out winter operations. That’s what started the dominoes falling and the last domino to fall was our crew scheduling system.”

Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Air Line Pilots Association (SWAPA), says that the pilot’s union has identified three main causes of Southwest’s operational meltdown: “First, Southwest leadership failed to properly prepare for winter storm Elliott. Second, Southwest managers failed to modernise crew management processes and related IT systems. Finally, Southwest failed to listen to the warnings of its frontline employees.”

“Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” he tells the committee. “Southwest has a history of repetition. Unfortunately, despite many opportunities, Southwest Airlines management did not listen to its pilots and frontline employees who saw this meltdown coming.”

Simililarly, Paul Hudson, president of the air travel advocacy group FlyersRights, characterises Southwest’s holiday debacle as “unprecedented but not unexpected”.

“Southwest as well as other airlines have had past meltdowns due to obsolete technology, lack of reserves of personnel and equipment, lack of stress-testing and unrealistic and deceptive scheduling,” he says.

Cantwell pressed for assurance from Southwest leadership that past mistakes would not be repeated. “People want to know: Are these guys going to invest in the technology that will make this system operational, so this will never happen again?”

Southwest Airlines Boeing 737

Source: Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines Boeing 737

Watterson concedes that Southwest needs to address both its ageing crew-scheduling software and its operational systems. “The winter operations were too much for us,” he says. “You’re correct that other airlines were able to handle the winter weather and we were not.”

He cites specifically the need for more infrastructure at airports for de-icing as well as protecting ground-support equipment from inclement weather, adding that the airline is conducting a “top-to-bottom” review of its winter operations that is scheduled to be completed next month. Expenses to address those issues will “undoubtedly be in the millions and millions of dollars”, he says, declining to provide a specific estimate. 

Jordan has promised to address the technology issues that plagued the carrier during the end-2022 travel period. Southwest is planning to invest $1.3 billion this year in “ongoing support of the technology infrastructure”, including upgrades and maintenance of IT systems, Jordan said during the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call on 26 January.

The carrier has also moved company executive Lauren Woods – most recently Southwest’s vice-president of technology – into the role of chief information officer to help manage IT upgrades in the aftermath of its late-2022 meltdown.

“We are intensely focused on reducing the risk of repeating the operational disruption we had in December,” Watterson says, “and repairing the trust our company has earned over its 52-year history.”