After a disastrous number of canceled flights last December, Southwest Airlines says it’s on track for a smoother holiday season this year. The airline has spent 2023 bolstering its arsenal of winter weather equipment and improving its technology and operations.
Those changes come after an operational failure that started with a winter storm in late 2022. The weather problems were especially bad in Denver and Chicago, where around a quarter of Southwest’s crews are based.
Many pilots and flight attendants could not reach the proper cities for their next assignments, and the complicated situation overwhelmed the software Southwest uses to reassign crews to new routes. This lead to mass flight cancellations. The scheduling issues plagued Southwest days after the storm when other airlines had largely recovered.
In total, Southwest canceled 16,700 flights last holiday season, affecting nearly 2 million passengers — many of whom were unable to reach family gatherings.
A year later, Southwest says its improvements are already making a difference, but some pilots and experts think the risk of another meltdown is still present.
What changes has Southwest made?
Earlier this year, Southwest outlined an improvement plan focused on three key areas that contributed to last December’s chaos.
Winter weather equipment
Since last winter’s weather conditions first triggered the problems, Southwest took steps this year to bolster its ground equipment.
Southwest bought more than 100 new de-icing trucks and added more de-icing pads, focusing heavily on key operating bases Denver International Airport and Chicago’s Midway Airport. The carrier says the changes are meant to help crews get planes in the air even during snow, ice and bitter cold.
The company also hired more ground staff at airports where frigid conditions require ground crew members to take frequent breaks.
Tom Nekouei, Southwest captain and Southwest Airlines Pilots Association vice president, says more equipment should reduce the severity of another meltdown, but he’s more doubtful about the technology improvements.
Southwest employees and aviation experts have long criticized the airline for its ailing technology. In 2023, the company attempted to rectify that, announcing it would put $1.3 billion toward technology projects this year, up 25% from 2019.
The airline increased its phone system capacity for customers and upgraded the software that assigns crews to new planes. It also added a new tech tool designed to help Southwest get its crew and aircraft reset in the event of another major disruption.
“In terms of the software, and what they’ve done in their processes to streamline how they schedule crews, we haven’t seen a huge difference, or change, for that matter,” Nekouei says.
Southwest told investors in its third-quarter earnings call that it reorganized staff and formed a new “Network Disruption Pod,” designed to coordinate decisions more quickly in response to potential problems. The company also played out hypothetical bad weather scenarios in a series of exercises with employees.
It’s worth noting that Southwest still operates a “point-to-point” route network, which means routes are scheduled in circular-ish patterns that do not require connections in hub airports.
Many of its competitors use a “hub-and-spoke” system, which filters a majority of flights through major airport hubs.
The point-to-point model is a hallmark of Southwest’s network, so it’s not going away any time soon. And that means the risk of getting caught in a Southwest scheduling nightmare isn’t going away either.
Southwest says changes already working
But company officials are voicing optimism:
“We are now so much better prepared for these extreme weather events,” Andrew Watterson, Southwest’s COO, told analysts on the airline’s most recent earnings call.
In an email, Southwest said changes made this year have already helped it navigate summer storms without major disruption and the company has been happy with the results so far.
During the peak summer months, between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day, Southwest canceled 1% of flights compared to its competitors’ collective 1.9%, according to flight-tracking site FlightAware. (Southwest’s delay rate was higher than that of its competitors, though).
How should passengers prepare?
Ultimately, the record-breaking crowds expected at airports this holiday season will prove to be the true test of Southwest’s operation.
“Do we think that there could be another meltdown this winter? Absolutely,” Nekouei says.
Paul Hudson, president of the passenger advocacy group FlyersRights, expects that, at the very least, things should be better than last year. However, he suggests travelers fly nonstop whenever possible and have a backup plan (potentially in the form of a backup, refundable flight on another airline) just to be safe.
“We certainly would hope it’s a lot better, but the basic fundamental problems haven’t really changed,” Hudson says, speaking broadly about the airline industry. “Airlines have a financial incentive to cut back on service because good service costs them more money.”
(Top photo courtesy of Southwest Airlines)
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