Jan. 3, 2023, © Leeham News: I’ve been employed by, consulting, or writing about the airline industry for 43 years.
I’ve seen plenty of times when flights were disrupted. There was 9/11, in which the US skies were closed for four days. It was a first. The COVID pandemic essentially shut down global traffic for months, another first. I’ve seen 40% of the US capacity operating in bankruptcy following the 1991 Persian Gulf War. There was SARS. The hijacking epidemic in the 1970s. The Palestine Liberation Organization hijacked four airliners at once and blew them up in the desert, fortunately having let passengers and crew deplane first.
See airport chaos:
Air travel issues continue, but now in our area they’re largely related to one airline, Southwest. Video sent by a viewer of our sister station in Baltimore shows BWI Marshall, where Southwest has nearly 200 canceled flights today. 32 Southwest flights canceled at DCA, 10@ Dulles pic.twitter.com/tgurnJzwOX
— Tom Roussey (@tomroussey7news) December 26, 2022
Every single one of these bags is a family's plans gone to shit because of southwest airlines.
My refund was $9 for a $200+ trip..i don't know where my bag is. Never flying through them again pic.twitter.com/II2T3aRk4x
— 🥩Mubb-Pubb ᴴᴱ/ᴴᴵᴹ (✈️25th-9th🎄) (@Mutt_Punk) December 26, 2022
But never have I seen the chaotic meltdown of an airline like that seen during the Christmas period of Southwest Airlines. On Boxing Day, the Luv airline canceled two-thirds of its flights. Its hubs in places like Baltimore and Chicago Midway were a sea of humanity and baggage. Southwest’s meltdown was simply unbelievable.
Yet, somehow, I wasn’t terribly surprised.
I’ve been watching Southwest for nearly five decades. I gave up flying it probably close to 20 years ago, even though I love Midway Airport (I still have family in the Chicago suburbs). Southwest has been on a long, long, long road to implosion for years.
Southwest is famous for its cost control: A single fleet type; unparalleled employee cross-utilization; and high airplane and employee productivity top the list. Even saving paper clips that come in the mail, though this one is highly overblown.
But being frugal isn’t the same as being skinflint, and Southwest has been a skinflint for decades. It under-invested in its reservations system. This delayed the ability to offer international flights and reportedly led to the collapse of the proposed cooperative agreement with WestJet. Internal computerized infrastructure lagged, something that current CEO Bob Jordan now has pointed out as one contributor to the current operational meltdown. Flight crew information technology is so antiquated, they must telephone to let operations know where they are.
Guys, this is the 21st Century, not the 1970s.
Jordan, by the way, is getting an unfair rap when people charge that he, as the CEO, is responsible for this IT issue. He’s been CEO for less than a year. The spending and technologies policies issues trace to Herb Kelleher, a co-founder of Southwest and the long-time CEO. He was followed by Gary Kelly, Kelleher’s CFO. Kelly actually recognized the technology shortfalls and spent money to upgrade it. But not enough. Southwest remained rooted in the 20th Century. The blame falls on them, not Jordan.
Labor relations at Southwest are poor. This is a long-festering decline. Southwest is one of the most heavily unionized airlines in the USA. The esprit de corps during the Kelleher era was high. The place was fun to work and fun to fly.
No longer. Fights between labor and management break out into the public domain on a regular basis. When Kelly, the CEO at the time, wrote to employees during the COVID pandemic that labor costs were too high for the times and needed to come down, the unions sent him packing. If Kelleher, the gregarious co-founder of Southwest and zany but shrewd leader for decades, had asked, I bet there could have been accommodation.
Pilots have engaged in a public relations campaign for years, complaining about pay and work rules. Flight attendants joined, too. (In 2019, pre-pandemic, Southwest’s labor costs were 45% of total expenses, so I have a problem thinking workers are underpaid, but this is another story.) Southwest simply isn’t the “family” it used to be. It’s just another place to work, and it shows.
Southwest has had only two fatal accidents since it began service in 1971. One was a runway overrun in Chicago in which the Boeing 737 left the airport grounds and hit a car driving by on adjacent Central Avenue. A passenger in the car was killed. There were 22 injuries.
The other was during a flight departing Philadelphia. An engine had an uncontained failure. Shrapnel blew out a window and the passenger in the window seat was partially sucked out. She died. Skillful piloting landed the airplane safely.
Only two deaths in 51 ½ years is an enviable record that is unmatched in the US. But there were other close calls. A runway excursion in Burbank (CA) saw the plane end up short of a gas station. A few more yards and the gas pumps would have been hit. There were 43 injuries among the 142 people on board.
Two 737 NGs suffered in-flight “pop tops” at cruising altitudes. Sections of the top of the fuselage ripped open due to metal fatigue. The flights landed safely. Metal fatigue is something that should be identified during heavy maintenance checks. At least cracks longitudinally at the window line of 737 Classics were discovered before an incident, requiring major maintenance for many aircraft still in its fleet at the time.
Southwest and the Federal Aviation Administration have been at odds for years. The Wall Street Journal on Dec. 23 published an exclusive report about the tension between Southwest and the FAA.
“The FAA in 2019 removed three senior managers at its Southwest office following allegations of lax safety enforcement by the office, which has been the subject of investigations by government watchdogs and federal lawmakers,” The Journal reported. Problems continue, the paper reported.
“Southwest maintains a culture of compliance, recognizing the safety of our operation as the most important thing we do, and any implication that we would tolerate a relaxing of standards is unfounded,” the paper quoted a Southwest spokeswoman.
Perhaps, but the FAA has levied multiple fines in the millions of dollars for failure to follow rules, regulations, and procedures.
Southwest’s day of reckoning has arrived. The current meltdown was not Southwest’s first. The airline had a similar meltdown in October 2022 (blaming hurricanes this time). Nor is it unique to Southwest, although the national scope and depth are unprecedented.
Spirit Airlines had a similar meltdown in August 2021. Somehow, you expect that from Spirit. You don’t expect that from Southwest. Southwest needs a top-to-bottom extreme makeover. Executives need to make investments in infrastructure. Labor relations need to be improved. And improvements to safety are also needed.
No wonder I don’t get invited to their media days anymore.