What is behind Southwest Airlines apparent meltdown?

A Southwest Airlines aircraft taxis in the snow.
Photo Credit: Southwest Airlines

LONDON – The high level of flight cancellations and delays over the Christmas period by Dallas-based carrier Southwest Airlines, together with its subsequent customer service, has raised the ire of customers and prompted federal investigators to question the situation.

US DOT action

A US Department of Transportation (DOT) statement on Monday this week characterized the situation, which saw a significant number of Southwest Airline flights cancelled, as “disproportionate and unacceptable”.

NBC News reported that Monday’s figures for flight cancellations alone included around 300 for Delta Air Lines, 130 for United Airlines and at least 2,893 for Southwest Airlines.

Southwest subsequently advised that it would only be operating at approximately one-third capacity for the “next several days.”

Yesterday the US Department of Transportation expressed its concerns with the Southwest Airlines situation, stating:

“USDOT is concerned by Southwest’s unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays & reports of lack of prompt customer service.”

“The Department will examine whether cancellations were controllable and if Southwest is complying with its customer service plan.”

The Department went on to reinforce an airline’s obligations to its customers, with US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg telling CNN News that it could take action to hold them to account, saying:

“When a flight is canceled or severely delayed and it’s the airline’s fault, they are responsible for taking care of the customer. Southwest needs to make good on its promise to travelers.”

“This afternoon, Pete Buttigeig spoke with union leaders and the CEO of Southwest Airlines to convey the Department’s expectation that Southwest meet its obligations to passengers and workers and take steps to prevent a situation like this from happening again.”

“Southwest’s customer service plan commits the airline to providing meal vouchers and hotels where available to passengers who are experiencing significant delays and cancelations.”

What has caused the meltdown?

In a subsequent video address on Tuesday Southwest Airlines Chief Executive Bob Jordan effectively blamed the severe weather conditions which affected the continental United States as the root cause of the problem.

Union representatives paint a different picture, citing problems with outdated scheduling software which was already struggling before the chaos of the winter storms as being an underlying cause.

The overwhelmed system has reportedly caused operational issues which includes the allocation and scheduling of flight crews and aircraft.

Buttigeig, who had spoken with union leaders earlier, told CNN News that “from what I can tell, Southwest is unable to locate even where their own crews are, let alone their own passengers, let alone baggage.”

Southwest stated on their social media channels earlier today: “On the heels of wide-scale disruptions, we’re working diligently to safely recover our operation & accommodate displaced customers & crews. We know this is unacceptable & sincerely apologize.”

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