How Southwest’s new CIO plans to rebuild the airline’s technology to earn back customers’ trust

February 3, 2023, 1:54 PM UTC
Lauren Woods, CIO of Southwest Airlines.
Courtesy of Southwest Airlines

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Rep. Ilhan Omar has been removed from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Saudi Arabia tourism is sponsoring the Women’s World Cup, and Southwest’s new CIO has a major challenge ahead. Have a groovy Friday.

– Flying high. Lauren Woods joined Southwest Airlines in 2010, running the technology behind the carrier’s mobile app, rewards program, website, and more. But when Southwest’s service cratered during the December holidays, it wasn’t that consumer-facing technology that was the problem; it was the airline’s system for internal communications and crew scheduling.

The meltdown that started with a winter storm led to the cancelation of more than 16,000 flights between Dec. 21-31. While other airlines recovered from the storm, the volume of cancelations overwhelmed Southwest’s systems and the chaos snowballed. The breakdown could cost the airline as much as $825 million. The collapse led the largest carrier of domestic passengers in the U.S. to realize it needed to overhaul its operations, including its scheduling systems.

That mission is now Woods’s top priority. The longtime technology exec was promoted to become the airline’s chief information officer, Southwest announced this week. “I have always been a big champion of technology transformation,” Woods told me ahead of the announcement. “But now I get to have a different seat at the table.”

Lauren Woods, CIO of Southwest Airlines.
Courtesy of Southwest Airlines

Although Woods usually sleeps with her phone by her bed at home in Dallas—such is the nature of the airline industry—she says her phone was barely ringing over the holidays because she was already “on calls 24/7.” The disruption revealed “feature gaps” in Southwest’s operations; namely that its automated systems (including a GE Digital crew scheduling system) were built to solve problems with future flights and failed to resolve issues for itineraries that were supposed to be in the past, Woods explains.

The new CIO’s priority is to “modernize our infrastructure to maintain the scalability and reliability that we need going forward,” including by building new systems supported by Amazon Web Services. She hopes that will win back the trust of employees and consumers who were left stranded last year. There won’t be any flashy changes for customers to notice; instead, these updates are meant to simply keep flights moving as scheduled.

“I do think that we’ll earn back that trust through those actions, rather than our words,” Woods says, “because I think we’re doing what’s right for our customers and our employees.”

Emma Hinchliffe

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- Omar is out. The House voted yesterday to remove Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) from the Foreign Affairs Committee. While Republicans cited her controversial 2019 remarks about pro-Israel groups as the reason for her removal, members of her party fiercely supported her and accused Republicans of hypocrisy. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) called the vote an act of "targeting women of color." New York Times

- Project Black. Mellody Hobson has stepped up to a call to narrow the racial wealth gap. Project Black by Ariel Investments connects minority-owned middle-market companies to corporations looking to diversify their supply chains and also acquires growing companies to diversify their leadership. Forbes

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- Bereavement for pregnancy loss. A new study shows that one in four U.S. companies offer bereavement leave for pregnancy loss. This seems to be a growing trend that mirrors the increase in companies offering paid bereavement leave, which is up to 90% from 79% in 2017. Bloomberg

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