Southwest Airlines’ Cancellation Nightmare

It would be easy to blame the massive and deadly storm that blanketed the entire middle of the nation for the debacle that resulted at Southwest during the days before and after Christmas 2022. Certainly, it was the storm that prevented the first Southwest flights from taking off. But after that, we can place the blame squarely on Southwest and its pursuit of profit.

Southwest created a holiday nightmare for passengers and workers, with hundreds of thousands of people stranded at airports and sleeping on floors, tens of thousands of pieces of lost luggage, airline workers unable to get new assignments or even get home themselves. In many cases, passengers and crew couldn’t get through to Southwest via phone, and had no choice but to show up at airports to get even basic service, making already packed airports even more chaotic, and waits for service even longer.

For years, Southwest had been using outdated scheduling software. But even though the company knew about this problem, they refused to spend money to upgrade their system in order to save costs. So upgrades were never made. And this worked for them until a major problem arose. Then the entire system crashed. It was so bad that they couldn’t even contact many of their flight crews.

Southwest is also known for running point-to-point flights, where their planes fly directly from one smaller city or region to another, without relying on major hubs where they have reserves of planes and crews. While this apparently increases the number of direct flights they can offer, when a major storm hit, it left them unable to quickly reset their flight schedules, with crews and planes completely out of position for the next scheduled flights, and no hubs filled with extra planes or staff that could be quickly put into use.

These problems were obvious to all who were paying attention, especially Southwest’s workers. Over the past year, union members protesting the companies’ policies have carried signs mocking the outdated computer systems, and in an official list of demands the union put forward last year, their top priority (above their own pay) was that Southwest update their failing computer systems.

It’s not only the traveling customers who get hurt. The employees have to deal with outdated equipment every day, and like workers in any industry, they know how things really work on the job far better than their bosses do. They feel the pain just as badly as the customers. One traveler whose flights had been cancelled and missed the holiday with her family didn’t only feel bad for herself, saying: “I feel awful for the staff … They’re working really, really hard.”

The Southwest debacle is yet another example of what corporations do to increase their profits and make their CEOs, Board of Directors, and big stockholders lots and lots of money. Their CEO, Bob Jordan, was paid $9.2 million in 2020, even as the airline lost $3 billion during the Covid shutdown.

And who pays the price? We do. The customers who rely on the airline and the workers who make it run.