Here’s Southwest Airlines’ latest strategy to avoid another crash this summer

Here’s Southwest Airlines’ latest strategy to avoid another crash this summer

It’s been five months since Southwest Airlines experienced an unprecedented collapse. They initially blamed the weather, but canceled more than 60% of their flights per day, even as other airlines across the country were operating normally. They found themselves short-staffed and without the systems to recover. Their phone system was broken. And they had to rebuild the schedules manually, contacting teams one at a time. And this went on for a week.

Millions of passengers were affected, and it cost the airline nearly a billion dollars directly, loss of goodwill that almost certainly had prospective revenue implications, and focused the need for significant new investment in people and technology.

Now, the airline is heading into summer (peak travel), so observers both inside and outside the company are asking if they’re ready. While December was a long tail event, the past few years have taught us that rare events happen more frequently than you might expect. Southwest has publicly outlined the steps it has taken to prevent a repeat of December. This is what they are telling the employees. Southwest has:

  • It hired 5,700 new employees, and while its hours increased 7% year-over-year, staffing increased 15%.
  • assessed staffing at airports and sent people to places that were understaffed.
  • created a cross-functional task force of leaders to address seasonal issues (instead of just focusing on the issues of the day). They call the SPF team for the Summer Preparation Forum.

One of the issues Southwest faced was trying to reach out to staff one on one, and that continues to be a problem. But they haveā€¦ he adjusted the order in which phone tree menu options are given and gave estimated wait times for the crew to wait (so they don’t hang up!). They have already made adjustments to their SkySolver system that were unable to rebuild flight schedules to the scale needed in December. And they have established better communications with customers regarding luggage through email and text messages.

They also adjusted hours in Denver, where their operation began to collapse in December. The construction of the summer runway means they are adjusting connection times and crew connection times to account for delays there.

In 2021 and 2022 there were operational challenges at Southwest and other airlines due to understaffing. That shouldn’t be the problem right now, although with turnover at almost 20% as of December, the number of new staff presents other challenges: a loss of context and experience in recovering when operations go wrong.

That’s a challenge other airlines are facing as well; in fact, some of Delta’s challenges in achieving its previous operational peaks may be the result of turnover, even at the operational leadership level.

Given the long-term nature of the investments Southwest needs to make, I suspect it will take more than 5 months to avoid not just a December-like crash, but a crash in response to a completely different and as yet unknown black. swan event But December certainly brought them into focus, and it appears they are taking steps to address areas of risk. In the meantime, we’ve seen IT failures in the past at both Delta and United, and I wouldn’t hesitate at all to fly Southwest this summer (in fact, I’m booked to).

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