A Cautionary Tale - How Southwest Created a Perfect Storm

A Cautionary Tale - How Southwest Created a Perfect Storm

December 30, 2022

Across the country, thousands of North American travelers are stranded due to inclement weather. But those stranded by Southwest Airlines are victims of something a bit more human-centric versus just Mother Nature’s wrath. A confluence of events from pandemic staffing shortages, a virulent flu season, and most importantly: Antiquated Data Systems. It is the perfect storm of a catastrophe. And so far, as the story is still emerging, it appears much of the woes of the Southwest perfect storm could have been avoided. 

Airlines across the continent were taken off track by a wild winter storm that grounded many flights during the busiest travel season. After the storm concluded, other airlines bounced back — not Southwest, though — why?

“The bad weather, coming a few days before Christmas, hit the airline harder than the rest of the industry because of inadequate computer systems that made it hard for the airline to get crews to waiting for planes and put passengers on alternative flights, and a flight model that allowed problems at one airport to cascade to others” noted Isabella Simonetti of the New York Times.

And the hits keep coming. 

At the time of publication, Southwest had deeply apologized for this debacle but their computer systems are still woefully inadequate. Southwest canceled more than 2,900 flights on Dec. 26 and then canceled approximately 5000 more on the 27th, and 28th. This is more than 60 percent of its schedule and it appears they are unable to fix the issue until the new year.

"In short, everything possible has gone wrong for Southwest, including some problems of their own making," says Kyle Potter, executive editor of Thrifty Traveler, as reported by NPR. "At this point, we can very safely say that this is no longer a weather-related disturbance. We've had clear skies in the United States for several days now, more or less, and Southwest is the only airline that is failing so spectacularly here."

How Did This Happen? A Brief History of Southwest’s Data Woes.

If the main cause of Southwest's problems is inadequate computer systems — how did this happen? First, Southwest failed to efficiently match crews with flights when cancellations started to accumulate, writes the New York Times.

Helane Becker, an aviation analyst with Cowen, was interviewed this week by NPR and explained, "It's not only their customer-facing systems, but it also's their crew scheduling and so on," Becker says. 

The truth is becoming more clear.

Southwest relied heavily on point-to-point flights, rather than the hub and spoke model of many of its largest competitors, like Delta and United, who, even with hundreds of flight cancellations, were able to quickly reschedule passengers stranded within hours versus days. 

“In fair weather, it's a system that has worked well for them. But in inclement weather, it can cause problems, says Kathleen Bangs, a former commercial airline pilot and spokesperson for FlightAware who was recently interviewed by NPR.

When it comes to Southwest’s technical issues — none of this is new news. 

In 2016, it was reported, the partial failure of a data router on July 20, 2016 led to an operational meltdown that caused the airline to cancel 2,300 flights over four days. 

“When the router failed, the data … piled up like a freeway traffic jam,” Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly wrote in a July 29, 2016, employee memo and reported via Bloomberg. “Like it or not, we live with some old technology.” 

This issue caused other systems to then shut down and although the budget-friendly airline fixed the glitch in about 12 hours, the outage stranded thousands of passengers.

All this was caused by its need for a new reservation system.

In June 2021, Southwest made headlines yet again when it… “canceled 370 flights for the day, or 10% of its schedule, according to Flight Aware. Southwest had also delayed 19% of its flights. 

A day earlier, the carrier canceled 566 flights or 16% of its schedule. And on Monday, Southwest delayed 1,500 flights,” according to Travel Weekly.

One can only guess it was more of the same: tech-related issues due to systems that need to be upgraded or replaced entirely. This time around, the delays and cancellations were because of an issue with its weather data provider.

This issue with the weather data provided cause the airline to tally up 1,398 delays — the most of any airline on the planet, according to FlightAware, a site that tracks global airline cancellations and other issues. But now in 2022, Southwest has broken its record for, well, being broken.

Tableau, a big data visualization, and analytics company published a case study saying it had helped Southwest maintain on-time flights and optimize fleet performance. This doesn’t appear to be working anymore. Data visualization only works when the data providers work. 


NowVertical works with clients who have issues just like Southwest. If you’re curious how Southwest could benefit from vertical intelligence, take a look at some of our customer success stories. For now, we can only wait and see if Southwest will make the move to replace its antiquated systems and get this resolved as it appears that each year that passes, makes Southwest a little farther from a resolution if massive action isn’t taken immediately.

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