Winter Meltdown

Southwest’s Holiday from Hell has dominated the news this week. Their route system has fallen to pieces and I can only imagine the nightmare of piecing it back together. I worked in the business for a long time as an aircraft dispatcher, which is the behind-the-scenes function of planning each flight and making sure each one reaches its destination.

That’s the short version. The long version is that they are the people in an airline’s control center who evaluate the weather, plan and file the routes, determine the fuel required, and manage a zillion other small details for each flight, each day, to make sure the whole system runs like a fine watch. It’s fascinating work, but it can also be a burnout job. Like I’m sure it is right now.

I say all this because it gives me some appreciation of the absolute mess Southwest has on its hands. One of the most memorable (as in worst) days of my career was putting a route system back together after our hub had been shut down for weather. Airplanes were out of position, flight crews were timing out (because they can’t stay on duty forever), and we had run out of options. One night’s disruption took the better part of a week to get back on schedule, and that was for a smallish freight operation with about 20 airplanes. Southwest has over seven hundred.

While they have a lot more people to deal with the minutia, the basic problem remains. If anything, it’s exacerbated by the fact that they don’t operate the traditional hub-and-spoke system. All of their routes are “point to point,” meaning they don’t concentrate airplanes and crews at strategic locations like Delta, United, or American do. Some airports get more Southwest traffic than others, but they don’t necessarily maintain ready spares at those locations to pull from when everything goes south.

This is super efficient when it works, but when it doesn’t? Yeesh. Disruptions cascade to the point where the whole system just grinds to a halt. That’s what we’re seeing right now, a metastasizing boulder of crap careening relentlessly downhill. They’ve trimmed their schedule down to less than half the normal daily departures and added a whole bunch of empty positioning legs–which is pure cost to them–all so they can get back to a mostly normal schedule by the end of the month. In the meantime, thousands of passengers are stranded and don’t even ask about their bags.

Some anonymous SWA insiders on Reddit have pinned a lot of the blame on staffing problems and an outdated scheduling and dispatch system. You can do more with less, to a certain extent, if you have the software tools in place to make their jobs easier. 1990’s-level tech won’t cut it. If crewmembers are holding on the phone for hours just talk to scheduling, that time is ticking away against their daily duty limit instead of being spent taking the next trip.

Other than these few brave souls’ admissions, I have no insider knowledge of what’s going on inside the company. But based on my own experience, I can picture it and sympathize. And I’m eternally grateful to be in a consulting gig now instead of in the trenches, struggling to make chicken salad out of chicken $&!+. There’s a saying that it takes decades to build a reputation and minutes to lose it, and I don’t know if they recover from this fiasco.

If you’re stuck in a terminal waiting for that elusive flight out, be nice to the gate agents. It’s not their fault, and I really wouldn’t want their job right now.

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