‘Warnings were ignored, poor performance was condoned’: Inside Southwest’s Christmas chaos that saw 2 million passengers stranded

Exhausted passengers look through piles of suitcases in an airport
Southwest is expected to outline work it has already done to prepare for cold weather snaps in the future.
Michael Ciaglo—Getty Images

Lawmakers are expected to hear a damning report of the circumstances which led to 16,700 Southwest flights being canceled this Christmas in what its pilots’ union has dubbed a “meltdown.”

Today the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation is expected to hear allegations that the business ignored warning signs, condoned poor performance, made excuses, and forgot its core values. The prepared testimony, reported by CNN, will come from the Southwest pilots’ union (SWAPA), with its president, Capt. Casey Murray, saying he “accurately predicted a major holiday meltdown during a SWAPA Number podcast recorded just a month before Southwest’s catastrophic failure.”

A release ahead of Capt. Murray’s testimony stated: “SWAPA pilots have been sounding the alarm for years about Southwest’s outdated IT and crew scheduling processes, and they have been summarily ignored. Captain Murray looks forward to answering the committee’s questions and shedding light on problems that have been plaguing Southwest for years to ensure that our pilots and passengers have a reliable travel experience going forward.”

Among the union’s evidence is a message seen by CNN from a cockpit computer, reading: “Sched is asking to confirm who is operating this flight. Pls send emp numbers to confirm. It’s a mess down here.” Another message in all capital letters, which is standard for this type of cockpit display, reads: “No updates here. Scheduling is so far behind we were told we aren’t allowed to walk over and talk to them.”

The debacle saw 91% of all Southwest’s flights canceled at one point—courtesy of a combination of winter storms and a unique problem with its operational systems.

Southwest executive Andrew Watterson is expected to apologize to travelers for the pandemonium during the hearing and said the carrier already “had an opportunity to test some newly implemented mitigation efforts” when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounded flights last month resulting from its own computer failure.

A statement from Watterson seen by the Wall Street Journal adds, “Let me be clear: We messed up. In hindsight, we did not have enough winter operational resilience. Please know that with the mitigations we have in place, we are confident in our flight network and the schedules we have published for sale.”

The airline also noted that it has made investments to prepare for similar cold snaps, improved telephone systems and software, as well as brought in a new team to control its command center.

‘Held together by duct tape’

The union’s testimony is expected to outline how Watterson, along with Southwest CEO Bob Jordan, “inherited a massive, complex operation held together by duct tape and baling wire,” adding that crumbling tech systems meant they failed “with increasing frequency and magnitude.”

Overseeing the hearing will be Sen. Maria Cantwell, who said ahead of the meeting: “We know this won’t be the last snowstorm to hit this country. So let’s figure why Southwest’s operations collapsed and what needs to change so this never happens again on Southwest or any other airline.”

The Senate Commerce Committee will soon begin working on legislation to reauthorize the FAA, Sen. Cantwell added: “We’ll be deciding how to strengthen protections for consumers, and what promises we need the airlines to make and keep about how they operate our nation’s air passenger system. What we learn at this hearing will greatly inform what reforms we put in place.”

Also expected to appear at the hearing are representatives from FlyersRights and Airlines for America. Southwest did not immediately respond when contacted for comment.

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