Southwest Airlines meltdown: When ultra-efficiency is not supported by technology – The Hill

Southwest Airlines has been unable to keep its operations functioning over the past few days. Winter Storm Elliott has impacted every airport in its path, causing the cancelation of thousands of flights. As the storm has receded, most airlines have recovered, except Southwest.
Flightaware provides real-time updates on cancellations and delays. Airports with a significant Southwest presence, including Denver International, Baltimore-Washington International, and Chicago Midway, have continued to have cancellations, largely driven by Southwest flights.
Why is this happening?
Southwest Airlines has been the poster child of airline efficiency and profitability for decades. It has also been passenger-friendly, with free checked baggage and no-fee flight changes. When other airlines crashed economically in the past, Southwest managed to remain profitable. Only the COVID-19 global pandemic ended their winning ways.
One factor that has made Southwest so profitable — and successful in competing with the legacy airlines (American, United, Delta) — is its ability to turn its flights more quickly and efficiently. By getting just one extra flight per day out of each airplane, the additional revenue has been a driving factor to keep it profitable when other airlines struggled to stay in the black.
Such efficiency is a competitive advantage almost all the time. However, when the extreme weather of Winter Storm Elliott hit the nation, impacting a large swath of the country, during a busy holiday weekend, the perfect storm brought Southwest Airline operations down to its knees.
Southwest CEO Robert Jordan acknowledged the problems, calling it a “tough day.”
The Southwest flight attendant union blamed outdated technology making it difficult to manage flight crews, effectively to get them where they need to be during the recovery mode. This is the period after an airline’s equipment and personnel are disrupted and must be repositioned to normal operations.
Computer models are the foundation of restoring airline operations so that flights can be rescheduled, flight crews can be matched to such schedules, and passengers can be served. The complexity of such an undertaking is unfathomable. Yet, every airline is forced to use such methods to get their operations back up and running.
Every flight canceled is revenue lost and passenger goodwill shattered. Investments in such technologies are expensive, yet without such investments, scheduling and recovery after major disruptions are slower and more challenging.
Indeed, the ultra-efficiency built into the Southwest model already makes it more vulnerable to disruptions and even more difficult to recover after a major weather event. Technology limitations only make the situation worse. This lack of robustness is one price to be paid for remaining profitable while other airlines have endured periods when making a profit was out of reach.
Should Southwest abandon its strategy that has served it well for decades?
Southwest has traditionally treated its employees well. This has its roots back to its founder, Herb Kelleher. Reports of this not being the case this week have occurred and will need to be addressed.
A winning long-term formula for success cannot be tossed aside due to a bad week of operations. What can be done is to take the lessons learned over the past week to better prepare it for future scheduling needs, particularly during massive disruptions.
This includes investing in the technical expertise and tools to facilitate quicker crew and equipment scheduling, particularly when in recovery mode following disruptions. Given that the CEO has a degree in computer science, he should be uniquely familiar with the value of such tools.
Such investments in technology are invaluable at all times but are critical, particularly during periods following major weather events like Winter Storm Elliott. Without the tools to recover from out-of-position equipment and crews, and quickly restore the system, passengers and their checked baggage are left stranded, sometimes for days.
The past week should be a wake-up call to Southwest, as well as a lesson to all airlines. Efficiency is a catalyst for profitability, while robustness is a driver for customer satisfaction. The two may sometimes be in conflict. Yet, both are needed, particularly in service industries like air travel.
Southwest will recover from this debacle and hopefully make the necessary technology investments to become a better airline for its employees and its customers. It may need to sacrifice some of its profitability in the future to become more robust. In the long run, it will be worth it.
Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a founder professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy. His research provided the technical foundations for TSA PreCheck. 
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