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The Southwest Airlines Debacle – What Really Happened

By January 2, 2023Uncategorized

Passenger searches for her luggage inside the Southwest terminal at Los Angeles International Airport

In all, Southwest has canceled about 15,700 flights since winter weather began disrupting air travel on December 22, far more than other airlines. A week after severe winter weather wreaked havoc on holiday air travel across the United States, other major carriers were back up and running. Not Southwest.

The press has done a good job of reporting the impact on passengers, but they have done a bad job on reporting why Southwest performed so badly.

The “point-to-point” model

Here is some coverage from the New York Times, “Southwest uses a ‘point-to-point’ route model…” In the point-to-point model, each flight is a single journey. The origin and destination are connected via a single non-stop flight. “Point-to-point flights cut travel times by eliminating the intermediate stop — typically a big advantage for travelers who are not flying from major metro areas. Other large carriers like United and American rely on a ‘hub-and-spoke’ model in which planes typically fly from smaller cities to a hub airport where passengers change planes.”

This is inaccurate. Southwest actually flies a point-to-point-to-point model. A plane starting in Richmond Virginia might fly to Chicago, where most passengers get off. Then the plane flies to San Diego. Then it stays there overnight, and the next day the plane might fly to Dallas.

And while Southwest says they are point-to-point, Atlanta (ATL), Baltimore/Washington (BWI), Chicago Midway (MDW), Denver (DEN), Houston Hobby (HOU), Nashville (BNA), Oakland (OAK), Phoenix (PHX) and St. Louis (STL) are the airline’s major connecting airports. So many flights go in and out of these airports, that flights going through these cities are really operating in a hub-and-spoke model, they just don’t call it that.

Hub-and-spoke is more flexible

Several outlets reported that hub-and-spoke models are more flexible. Thus, airlines operating in this model could recover more quickly. If “flexibility” is defined in terms of routing optionality, this is true. The many potential different origin-destination pairings – along with a model that must consider how many can fly on a plane, distance, speed, union rules, federal regulations, airline policies, staff availability, and other constraints as well – makes for a very, very complex routing problem.

But the point of all those options is to maximize profitability, not resilience. When it comes to resilience – recovering from something bad that happens – the simplicity of point-to-point beats hub-and-spoke or point-to point-to-point. If there is a plane flying between Richmond Virginia and Cincinnati Ohio – and something goes wrong – only the passengers on that route are affected. But with the other models, bad things happening in one place can ripple through the system and lead to a cascading set of cancellations.

What did happen?

As soon as I heard how much worse Southwest was performing than their competitors, I knew there had to be an IT problem. That proved to be true.

Southwest’s system, it turns out, could not keep track of where its crew members and pilots were after so many flights were canceled. That led to the snowball effect that crippled operations.

But it was more than that. Ground operations in Denver were hampered by an unusually high number of absences among ramp employees. Ramp employees help planes park and handle the luggage. If this part of the supply chain is not working, the snowball starts rolling and the whole chain breaks down.

The Union is not willing to have their people blamed. The ground workers at Southwest Airlines are represented by Transport Workers Union (TWU). The Union issued a statement. “When Southwest’s model changed” (from point-to-point), “preparation needed to change. If airline managers had planned better, the meltdown we’ve witnessed in recent days could have been lessened or averted.

“When you’re dealing with sub-zero temperatures, driving winds and ice storms you can’t expect to schedule planes as if every day is a sunny day with moderate temperatures and a gentle breeze. The human factor also has to be a consideration. Ground workers need more support. Many of our people have been forced to work 16 or 18 hour days during this holiday season. Our members work hard, they’re dedicated to their jobs, but many are getting sick, and some have experienced frostbite over the past week. In severe weather it’s  unreasonable for workers to stay outside for extended periods. People need to be able to cycle in and out of the cold. The airline needs to do more to protect its ground crews.”

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