Southwest Expects Friday Recovery From ‘Meltdown’


Southwest Airlines has told its employees to expect almost all its regular flights to operate on Friday. The memo came after the shellshocked airline canceled two-thirds of its schedule for Thursday and brought its total of cancellations since Dec. 22 to 15,700. To put that in perspective, the 2,350 flights it’s canceling on Thursday account for 99 percent of total cancellations so far planned in the U.S. “We’re optimistic to be back on track before next week,” CEO Bob Jordan told CNN.

Jordan has repeatedly apologized for the mess that started with cold and snow in the East and was complicated by staff issues in Denver. The network reported that Southwest invoked an operational emergency in Denver after getting a rash of sick and personal day calls on Dec. 21. The company required those calling in sick to have notes from doctors. Meanwhile, spokesman Chris Perry told CNN staff are working hard to get mountains of baggage sorted and planes and flight crews back where they belong. “We have not had staffing issues at any station across our operation and commend our People for the valiant work they are doing,” Perry said.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN he’s looking for assurances from the airline that the issues that led to the holiday “meltdown” will be fixed and that affected passengers will be compensated. “I made clear that our department will be holding them accountable for their responsibilities to customers, both to get them through this situation and to make sure that this can’t happen again,” the Secretary said.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. Lots of interesting discussion over here: Seems to be a case of MBAs running a company into the ground due to lack of investment in areas that are critical, and badly understood by the management. Not the first time, or unfortunately the last time this will happen in corporate America.

  2. Guess there are consequences to proffering “free” (included in the fare price)checked baggage, eh?

    What a mess. There are hundreds of reports of customers tracking their bags with AirTags, seeing their bags located at residences. The passengers are stranded in different cities than their bags and can do nothing about it.

  3. The network reported that Southwest invoked an operational emergency in Denver after getting a rash of sick and personal day calls on Dec. 21. The company required those calling in sick to have notes from doctors.

    “We have not had staffing issues at any station across our operation and commend our People for the valiant work they are doing,” Perry said.

    Same paragraph. Which is it?

  4. A friend of mine who was caught in the cancellation mess was told that one of the pilots “didn’t want to” fly. Since two guys are required up front the flight was cancelled. My friend had zero sympathy for the obstinate pilot and I can understand that.

    My question is, why didn’t the pilot want to fly? He didn’t know and didn’t care. Given the spate of sick-outs at Southwest I suspect there are some very deep issues going on at Southwest with their flight crews. I may be stating the obvious but I just don’t follow airline news that closely. I’m more of a Champ and Cub guy.

  5. There are issues with staffing at Southwest regardless of what they say publicly. It has to do with the way management at Southwest has been treating their employees. There are a number of articles about this available on various websites.

  6. I just saw THIS under a heading of SWAPA on Facebook:

    Voices From The Line: Larry Lonero
    What happened to Southwest Airlines?

    I’ve been a pilot for Southwest Airlines for over 35 years. I’ve given my heart and soul to Southwest Airlines during those years. And quite honestly Southwest Airlines has given its heart and soul to me and my family.

    Many of you have asked what caused this epic meltdown. Unfortunately, the frontline employees have been watching this meltdown coming like a slow motion train wreck for sometime. And we’ve been begging our leadership to make much needed changes in order to avoid it. What happened yesterday started two decades ago.

    Herb Kelleher was the brilliant CEO of SWA until 2004. He was a very operationally oriented leader. Herb spent lots of time on the front line. He always had his pulse on the day to day operation and the people who ran it. That philosophy flowed down through the ranks of leadership to the front line managers. We were a tight operation from top to bottom. We had tools, leadership and employee buy in. Everything that was needed to run a first class operation. When Herb retired in 2004 Gary Kelly became the new CEO.

    Gary was an accountant by education and his style leading Southwest Airlines became more focused on finances and less on operations. He did not spend much time on the front lines. He didn’t engage front line employees much. When the CEO doesn’t get out in the trenches the neither do the lower levels of leadership.

    Gary named another accountant to be Chief Operating Officer (the person responsible for day to day operations). The new COO had little or no operational background. This trickled down through the lower levels of leadership, as well.

    They all disengaged the operation, disengaged the employees and focused more on Return on Investment, stock buybacks and Wall Street. This approach worked for Gary’s first 8 years because we were still riding the strong wave that Herb had built.

    But as time went on the operation began to deteriorate. There was little investment in upgrading technology (after all, how do you measure the return on investing in infrastructure?) or the tools we needed to operate efficiently and consistently. As the frontline employees began to see the deterioration in our operation we began to warn our leadership. We educated them, we informed them and we made suggestions to them. But to no avail. The focus was on finances not operations. As we saw more and more deterioration in our operation our asks turned to pleas. Our pleas turned to dire warnings. But they went unheeded. After all, the stock price was up so what could be wrong?

    We were a motivated, willing and proud employee group wanting to serve our customers and uphold the tradition of our beloved airline, the airline we built and the airline that the traveling public grew to cheer for and luv. But we were watching in frustration and disbelief as our once amazing airline was becoming a house of cards.

    A half dozen small scale meltdowns occurred during the mid to late 2010’s. With each mini meltdown Leadership continued to ignore the pleas and warnings of the employees in the trenches. We were still operating with 1990’s technology. We didn’t have the tools we needed on the line to operate the sophisticated and large airline we had become. We could see that the wheels were about ready to fall off the bus. But no one in leadership would heed our pleas.

    When COVID happened SWA scaled back considerably (as did all of the airlines) for about two years. This helped conceal the serious problems in technology, infrastructure and staffing that were occurring and being ignored. But as we ramped back up the lack of attention to the operation was waiting to show its ugly head.

    Gary Kelly retired as CEO in early 2022. Bob Jordan was named CEO. He was a more operationally oriented leader. He replaced our Chief Operating Officer with a very smart man and they announced their priority would be to upgrade our airline’s technology and provide the frontline employees the operational tools we needed to care for our customers and employees. Finally, someone acknowledged the elephant in the room.

    But two decades of neglect takes several years to overcome. And, unfortunately to our horror, our house of cards came tumbling down this week as a routine winter storm broke our 1990’s operating system.

    The frontline employees were ready and on station. We were properly staffed. We were at the airports. Hell, we were ON the airplanes. But our antiquated software systems failed coupled with a decades old system of having to manage 20,000 frontline employees by phone calls. No automation had been developed to run this sophisticated machine.

    We had a routine winter storm across the Midwest last Thursday. A larger than normal number flights were cancelled as a result. But what should have been one minor inconvenient day of travel turned into this nightmare. After all, American, United, Delta and the other airlines operated with only minor flight disruptions.

    The two decades of neglect by SWA leadership caused the airline to lose track of all its crews. ALL of us. We were there. With our customers. At the jet. Ready to go. But there was no way to assign us. To confirm us. To release us to fly the flight. And we watched as our customers got stranded without their luggage missing their Christmas holiday.

    I believe that our new CEO Bob Jordan inherited a MESS. This meltdown was not his failure but the failure of those before him. I believe he has the right priorities. But it will take time to right this ship. A few years at a minimum. Old leaders need to be replaced. Operationally oriented managers need to be brought in. I hope and pray Bob can execute on his promises to fix our once proud airline. Time will tell.

    It’s been a punch in the gut for us frontline employees. We care for the traveling public. We have spent our entire careers serving you. Safely. Efficiently. With luv and pride. We are horrified. We are sorry. We are sorry for the chaos, inconvenience and frustration our airline caused you. We are angry. We are embarrassed. We are sad. Like you, the traveling public, we have been let down by our own leaders.

    Herb once said the the biggest threat to Southwest Airlines will come from within. Not from other airlines. What a visionary he was. I miss Herb now more than ever.

    • Very good description of a classic business evolution. As an operationally oriented management consultant, I saw this story repeat several times. Unfortunately boards of directors tend to favor financial types as successors. The board members interact with the CFOs far more often than the operational types. As a discipline, accountants can work in any business and easily move between businesses. On the other hand, it takes 10 years or more to learn to run a company’s operations.

    • An excellent review of what can happen to an airline with mismanagement. I can empathize as I retired from an airline that declared bankruptcy to hide their years of mismanagement.

      “Herb once said the the biggest threat to Southwest Airlines will come from within. Not from other airlines. What a visionary he was. I miss Herb now more than ever”. These words can also apply to our National outlook I think.

  7. I was flying last night, a lot of Southwest planes on both Philly and Potomac Approach frequencies. Flew Wednesday and heard basically none. I think Southwest will recover, the new CEO is not a accountant looking to squeeze every dime out of the company. He is an operations guy like Herb Keller was. If the government stays out of it and the unions work with SW instead of kicking them when they are down I believe SW will be stronger and even better in the future. My favorite line. We plan our vacations around where they fly.