As we write this, we are stranded along with millions of people this holiday season, thanks to Southwest Airlines (SWA). What’s shocking is that Southwest Airlines, which contributed to 87% of all canceled flights on December 27th and 99% on December 28th, is known for providing the best customer experience—ranked #1 in Customer Satisfaction by JD Power in the Economy segment as recently as May 2022.
Well, all of that fell over during the December 2022 holiday season. A winter storm was the first domino and the easiest to blame, but there were many more reasons Southwest failed where other airlines survived. Aggressive scheduling, underinvesting in operations and IT systems, lack of mitigation strategies, a point-to-point routing model, and understaffing of many roles – all elements correlated to profitability were to blame.
Vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, Capt. Mike Santoro described the Holiday 2022 storm as “a catalyst that helped trigger major technical issues. What went wrong is that our IT infrastructure for scheduling software is vastly outdated,” he said. “It can’t handle the number of pilots, flight attendants that we have in the system, with our complex route network.”
In short, Southwest’s antiquated systems and infrastructure lacked the agility and flexibility to handle the necessary changes in weather patterns. They simply couldn’t keep track of their crew members and pilots with the changes created by the storm. How many companies make this choice to deprioritize technical and operational infrastructure because it’s harder to directly connect Operations (and IT) with profit and customer experience until it falls down? Like it did for Southwest.
So, who is to Blame?
The front-line workers took the brunt of consumer pain, while the Executives will likely not. Yet the Executives are squarely responsible for this problem:
- The issue that happened should have been mitigated with risk scenarios run and re-run to ensure the best consumer experience while balancing profits.
- The issue was not entirely new, as Southwest Airlines experienced similar issues in October 2021 (2,000 flights canceled over a 4-day-period)
- The infrastructure issues should have been resolved well before these issues occurred, which would take investment and time, but that, too, is the Executives’ responsibility. How many other airlines collapsed at this level because of the same storm?
So, it wasn’t the gate agents, pilots, flight attendants, or baggage handlers’ fault for this debacle – the responsibility should land squarely on the poor planning and execution of the Executives. In essence, the Southwest Airlines Executive teams got over their skis – they prioritized profits over everything else and were caught.
According to Southwest’s website, their motto: To be the world’s most loved, most efficient, and most profitable airline, was utterly forgotten. You can’t be an airline that is loved, efficient, or profitable if you cancel all your flights, your employees are sent to the wrong airports, or ill-prepared for the support needs of your customers, and all because the Executives couldn’t execute on a mitigation plan to bolster their infrastructure. The fact that $13/hr employees have to take the brunt of the Executives’ mistakes is also utterly unforgivable.
Digital Transformation requires investment – if we are to learn anything about what happened at Southwest, delaying the decision to invest truly is a mistake. It may not make every headline in the US and Worldwide, but profits will not happen if you can’t support your ambitions. The two (Profit and Operations) need to remain in balance, or else you may find your company on the wrong side of a trending hashtag like #neversouthwest.
Note on 01/02/23: Southwest Airlines canceled 15,700 flights during the 2022 Holiday period.